Baku Race Highlights Red Bull’s Free-to-Race Policy
In a monotonous Azerbaijan Grand Prix, a fierce head-to-head battle between leading Formula 1 drivers Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen brought a much-needed spark of excitement. Despite lacking direct wheel-to-wheel action, their relentless pursuit of victory showcased Red Bull’s unwavering commitment to a ‘free to race’ policy. As the season unfolds, Red Bull’s dynamic duo pushes the limits, challenging the status quo and raising questions about team strategies in the world of Formula 1.
In a rather uneventful Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the two leading Formula 1 vehicles were fortunately able to compete head-to-head without any restrictions, except for one specific order.
During the Baku race, both Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen’s relentless efforts added excitement after they easily overtook polesitter Charles Leclerc, even though they never engaged in direct wheel-to-wheel racing.
Perez was already putting pressure on Verstappen before the safety car intervention caused by Nyck de Vries changed their positions, and their intense time-trial battle persisted until the race concluded with the waving of the checkered flag.
After the race, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner mentioned that the drivers were exchanging tales of their close encounters with the barriers beneath the podium – Verstappen had four incidents, while Perez had two according to Horner’s initial post-race evaluation.
Horner stated that the intention was always to allow the drivers to push throughout the entire race, as it has been all season, and it’s difficult to argue with this approach.
Team orders were never considered in Bahrain since Verstappen outpaced Perez, and in Jeddah, Verstappen – who overcame a technical problem that eliminated him from Q2 – was permitted to chase Perez during the latter half of the race, with Perez successfully fending off the challenge.
Although Perez had a challenging weekend in Melbourne that kept him from getting close to Verstappen, the Baku race reaffirmed Red Bull’s policy in action.
While the drivers were allowed to race freely, the team established a specific exception before the race began.
Horner recalled the 2018 incident when F1Lead inquired about how the team handles its two leading cars, stating that it remains deeply ingrained in the team’s memory.
He mentioned during a morning briefing that the drivers are allowed to compete but they do not want a repeat of the 2018 incident.
The two drivers pushed each other to their limits, with only a narrow margin separating them in the end.
The 2018 event that has left a lasting impression on Red Bull is, of course, the collision between Verstappen and his former teammate, now rejoining as the third driver, Daniel Ricciardo, during the Baku race.
At that time, Verstappen and Ricciardo were battling for the top spot behind the two Mercedes cars and Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari (with teammate Kimi Raikkonen already out due to a collision with then-Force India driver Esteban Ocon).
During the first safety car restart, six laps into the race, Verstappen overtook Ricciardo with a bold move at the narrow Turn 2 left-hander. Six laps later, the two teammates collided when Ricciardo attempted to pass Verstappen down the main straight, and Verstappen defended his position on the inside at Turn 1.
Although Verstappen maintained his position, Ricciardo persisted in trying to overtake him and eventually succeeded with just 16 laps remaining in the race.
During the final pitstop, Ricciardo was overtaken by Verstappen, so he attempted to regain his position a few laps later. However, this move led to Ricciardo crashing into the back of Verstappen, resulting in both cars being dramatically eliminated from the race.
Both drivers acknowledged their role in the collision, and the stewards reprimanded them – Verstappen for making “two moves” in defense, and Ricciardo for initiating his move too late.
Since that incident, there has not been a significant clash between Red Bull teammates. This is primarily because none of Verstappen’s teammates have been able to consistently match his performance as closely as Ricciardo did throughout the majority of their partnership.
Perez’s impressive 2023 season so far is challenging the status quo, and coupled with Red Bull’s significant car advantage, it is leading to situations where the team must manage its two drivers racing against each other on track.
However, the ‘free to race’ policy is not expected to change anytime soon, as there is only one main reason – apart from a few intra-team collisions – that would prompt Red Bull to alter this approach.
Horner indicated that the policy would remain in place until the team’s interests change. If competition with another team takes precedence over the drivers’ individual interests, the policy might be reconsidered. But for now, they are free to race against each other.
This approach is similar to Mercedes’ policy during its title-winning years in the past decade, as the team mainly implemented orders (apart from specific race situations like Hungary 2014) when Ferrari posed a threat to its dominance in 2017-18 and Red Bull in 2021.
As it stands, with Red Bull’s supremacy unthreatened, we can anticipate Perez and Verstappen continuing to have the freedom to race against each other – subject to the constraints of the RB19’s development direction, Perez’s ability to consistently keep up with Verstappen, and the limitations of engine components.
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