Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has made it clear that swapping Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix “wasn’t strictly team orders.”
The Ferrari of Charles Leclerc had started on pole in Baku but had been brought into the pits under the first of two Virtual Safety Cars, the first deployed to recover teammate Carlos Sainz’s stricken car from Turn 4. Both Red Bulls decided against pitting and ran 1-2 with Perez leading Verstappen on tyres that were graining faster than the Dutchman’s.
Once it became clear that Verstappen was faster than the Mexican at that stage of the race, Red Bull ordered Perez not to fight and to allow him to overtake without any form of defence. Many noted how this was clearly another example of team orders used in Verstappen’s favour at what is still a fairly early stage of the season, but Horner argues that the reality is in fact very different in this case.
“It wasn’t strictly team orders,” Horner stated to media. “It was just a question of you’ve got simply a faster car and a slower car. And, you know, Max had a significant pace advantage on Checo at that point, who had quite heavy graining on his rear tyres. It’s just a question of: guys, let’s not put each other against the pit wall here. If one car is quicker, you know, concede, and let’s focus on getting the best result for the team.”
The reference of Horner being pushed against the pit wall can be somewhat attributed to the famous Baku crash in 2018 between Verstappen and then-teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who had been allowed to race each other whilst in a lucrative points-paying position. The impact of this on the Red Bull team’s mindset can not be downplayed, and it is certainly logical from a teams’ perspective to ensure a good finish for both cars.
“The pace difference between the two drivers was so significant,” Horner admits. “We discussed it this morning [and said] ‘if you’re racing each other, just give each other space’ and they did that today. And 2018 isn’t too far away at the back of our minds.
“So it was very important, you know, that the drivers, at this stage of the championship, are fair with each other because it is to maximise the points versus Ferrari. We know they’ve got a very quick car at the moment. We’ve seen how quickly things can turn around. So as a team, we need to prioritise that.
“Checo is a mature guy, he gets the bigger picture and he gets that it’s a long, long championship. He is in the form of his career off the back of Monaco. His qualifying performance yesterday, I think maybe with the benefit of hindsight coming into this weekend, perhaps there was too much weight put on qualifying in his setup with the rear deg that he experienced.
“So that’s something to have a look at, because Max was certainly in better shape in the race than Checo was at the back end of that first stint,” summed up Horner. He also recited that there are “very subtle” differences in the way Verstappen and Perez prefer to set-up their cars to suit their “very different” driving styles and preferences, with the former favouring chasing the front end of the car more than the latter.
Perez talked through his view of the race and how the order not to fight “a lot stronger” Verstappen came about. He also reveals how he was meant to pit under the first VSC, following the lead of Leclerc, which would have placed the Red Bull pair onto split strategies and avoided the need for the aforementioned order.
“It was a great start, to get Charles off the line, and really be able to do your own race. It was looking great all the way up to the Virtual Safety Car,” said Perez. “Then there was a bit of miscommunication with the team under the Virtual Safety Car. So we missed the opportunity to pit which was quite costly.
“Then we hit a lot of deg on that medium tyre after the Virtual Safety Car, so a few things to understand from that today. Certainly Max was quite a lot stronger in that phase of the race. And then it was mainly about bringing home after the Ferrari issue, so yeah, a few things to understand today because I don’t think also the stops were not ideal. A few bits to understand to try to improve them for Montreal and improve our race pace because certainly Max deserved the win,” summed up Perez.
Here’s how F1 Azerbaijan GP panned out