Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 3 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CLIVE ROSE
Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at Baku City Circuit on June 3 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/CLIVE ROSE

London — Max Verstappen will start Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix as Formula One world championship leader for the first time but also with his Red Bull under close technical scrutiny.

The race around the streets of Baku is the last before the sport’s governing body brings in new rear-wing flexibility tests.

Mercedes’s seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said in May he believed Red Bull were gaining precious tenths of a second by using a “bendy wing on the back of their car”.

The Briton, now four points behind the 23-year-old Dutch driver, also said the advantage on Baku’s long straights could be as much as six tenths. Hamilton’s team boss Toto Wolff warned in Monaco, where Verstappen won, that the delay in implementing the tougher tests could trigger a protest in Azerbaijan, the season’s sixth race.

Verstappen has yet to finish higher than fourth in Baku, with no race in 2020 due to Covid-19, but that could all be about to change as he chases his third win of the season.

“Baku’s a completely different street circuit where you run a lot less downforce because of that long straight and the grip levels also feel quite low there,” the Dutchman said. “Normally we should be quite competitive, but let’s see.”

Mercedes have taken pole and won three of four races to date in Baku, with Hamilton — who has won three times so far this year — triumphant in 2018 and teammate Valtteri Bottas in 2019. Daniel Ricciardo won for Red Bull in 2017, Nico Rosberg for Mercedes in 2016, and no driver has so far managed to win more than once there.

The Monaco weekend, with Hamilton seventh and Bottas retiring after a wheel could not be removed in a pit stop, was one to forget for Mercedes.

“We expect it [Baku] to be another tricky one for us, not particularly suiting the characteristics and traits of the W12 [car],” Wolff said. “Red Bull will be strong again, while both Ferrari and McLaren have made great progress recently.”

Ferrari had Charles Leclerc on pole in Monaco before his prerace retirement and Carlos Sainz finished second, ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris.

“I think that we’re not going to be the best ones on that long straight but at the same time, if we can make the time back on the tight part then we should be OK,” Sainz said. “The one that now should be excited about Baku is my friend Lando Norris ... he has a bit of a rocket on the straight.”

Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez will also be hoping to step up at a circuit where he finished third in 2016 and 2018 with Force India.

“I hope we can put a strong qualifying together because we’ve proved our race pace is right up there with the best. We just have to improve our Saturdays and then we should be fine,” the Mexican said.

The race will be without a live crowd due to the pandemic. 

Reuters

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