Journal De Bruxelles - Verstappen cracks Baku as fault lines widen in Leclerc's title assault

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Verstappen cracks Baku as fault lines widen in Leclerc's title assault
Verstappen cracks Baku as fault lines widen in Leclerc's title assault / Photo: HAMAD I MOHAMMED - POOL/AFP

Verstappen cracks Baku as fault lines widen in Leclerc's title assault

World champion Max Verstappen led a Red Bull 1-2 in Sunday's Azerbaijan Grand Prix in a potentially key moment of the title race after pole-sitter Charles Leclerc and Ferrari endured another dose of misery with a double retirement.

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Sergio Perez had jumped Leclerc to the first turn before Verstappen took control as the Ferraris of Carlos Sainz and then Leclerc retired with engine problems.

George Russell took third ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton who needed a helping elbow to climb out of his cockpit such was the state of his back after an afternoon being jolted around his bouncing car.

Verstappen's fifth win of the season, and the 25th of his career, tightened his grip on the drivers' standings with Perez moving into second, 21 points behind, while the luckless Leclerc slipped to 34 points adrift.

"Was that a good drive or was that a good drive?" a pleased Verstappen asked over the team radio, after ending his jinx in Baku, where he had never made the podium.

It was a memorable day for Red Bull who are 80 points clear of Ferrari in the constructors' championship ahead of round nine in Montreal next week.

As for Ferrari their habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory through questionable strategy or unreliability is beginning to look potentially fatal for their title ambitions.

Leclerc, for the fourth time, was unable to convert pole into a win, and he had his head in his hands in frustration.

"Better days will come" if the team just sticks together, Sainz suggested.

That's what Mercedes have been saying to themselves, and the world, all season as they struggle to unlock their cars' potential. Yet despite their troubles Russell is fourth in the title race and Mercedes third in the constructors standings.

The eighth round of the season saw track temperature pushing 50 degrees in the Land of Fire. Cars on the grid were treated to disco-style blasts of dry ice in the pre-race build up.

- Charged past -

Ahead of a stirring rendition of the Azerbaijani national anthem, Leclerc looked cool, leaning against a wall in shades with a kind soul holding a Ferrari red umbrella to protect him from the Sunday afternoon heat.

Also cooling down has been Leclerc's red hot early-season form after failing to convert three poles into wins.

An Italian inquisition after the botched strategy calls at Monaco last time out and the evidence from qualifying and practice here had left Leclerc optimistic that 'Saturday's man' could become 'Sunday's king'.

But Perez, sharing the front row, helped rip that plan to shreds when as he charged past on the short run to the first turn as Leclerc locked up.

After eight laps, Sainz limped out, his engine spluttering to a standstill, leaving Leclerc in an unequal struggle against the two Red Bulls.

Verstappen pounced on Perez to take the lead at the start of lap 15, as Leclerc posted the fastest lap,

Perez then pitted, coming out behind Leclerc, who was struggling to keep up with Verstappen, the gap at eight seconds with a third of the race completed.

When he did start gaining, Leclerc's race went up in a cloud of smoke when his engine blew on lap 21 to leave the Red Bulls an unmissable shot at an empty Baku goal.

"Difficult to understand for now," said Leclerc. "It hurts."

The battle for the vacant podium spot was being led by Russell, with Pierre Gasly in the Alpha Tauri Daniel Ricciardo the 2017 winner, and Hamilton.

As the midway point approached poor Zhou Guanyu reacted with a dismayed "Are you kidding me, again?" at being told over the team radio he had to retire, for the third time in four races.

Verstappen seemed to have the race in the bag, but both he and his pit lane team will have been mindful of what happened 12 months ago when he suffered a late retirement from a similar position of strength.

History did not repeat itself and Baku's sequence of producing a different winner each year since the inaugural race, staged as the European Grand Prix in 2016, continued.