Edd Straw’s 2023 Azerbaijan Grand Prix driver rankings
Formula 1 returned to action at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this past weekend after a four-week break but the order wasn’t too dissimilar with the Red Bulls dominating proceedings, save for a couple of briefly-held Charles Leclerc pole positions.
But who impressed Edd Straw across the whole weekend? He ranks the performances of all 20 drivers in Baku.
How do the rankings work? The 20 drivers will be ranked in order of performance from best to worst on each grand prix weekend. This will be based on the full range of criteria, ranging from pace and racecraft to consistency and whether or not they made key mistakes. How close each driver got to delivering on the maximum performance potential of the car will be an essential consideration.
It’s important to note both that this reflects performance across the entire weekend, cognisant of the fact that qualifying is effectively ‘lap 0’ of the race and key to laying the foundations to the race and that it is not a ranking of the all-round qualities of each driver. It’s simply about how they performed on a given weekend. Therefore, the ranking will fluctuate significantly from weekend to weekend.
And with each of the 10 cars fundamentally having different performance potential and ‘luck’ (ie factors outside of a driver’s control) contributing to the way the weekend plays out, this ranking will also differ significantly from the overall results.
Started: 1st Finished: 3rd
It was no surprise to see Leclerc’s virtuosity showcased on the streets of Baku given his long history of excelling on such tracks. His confidence shone through, as did his ability to gather up the rear end when it steps out without missing a beat, throughout qualifying.
His double-pole position was slightly blemished by his front-wing crunching mistake at Turn 5 at the end of sprint qualifying while on a second push lap, but his pace advantage over Sainz was a testament to how well Leclerc was driving.
It was always going to be harder in the races but second in the sprint, ahead of the hobbled Verstappen, and third in the grand prix itself after keeping Alonso out of range meant he maximised the results across all four on-track sessions that counted.
Verdict: One Saturday wall-nudge away from perfection.
Started: 3rd Finished: 1st
Perez started the weekend struggling for confidence after his Melbourne problems but grew into the weekend superbly. That translated into a decent performance in the first qualifying session, a good one in the second then two well-executed race wins.
His victory in the sprint was a straightforward one, picking off Leclerc with ease and controlling it to the end. But while he had the good fortune to be given the lead in the grand prix by the timing of the safety car, he was pressuring Verstappen before that happened and genuinely had the legs of his team-mate for a big part of the race.
Once in the lead, he drove superbly – although he did admit to being fortunate to get away with brushing the wall. This has to be considered his finest F1 victory given he had Verstappen chasing him for so long.
Verdict: Might very well have won even without the safety car assist.
Started: 6th Finished: 4th
DRS troubles compromised Alonso throughout practice and qualifying, although that didn’t stop him from reaching Q3 and SQ3, playing a key role in helping tow Stroll into the latter. But with the DRS functioning as intended in both races, he turned in two typically dogged drivers.
He picked off Albon at the start then Hamilton in the sprint to turn eighth on the grid into sixth place. He followed that up by gaining two places in the grand prix to turn sixth into fourth, jumping Hamilton, who he was pressuring, thanks to the Mercedes driver’s pre-safety-car pitstop. He then pulled off a characteristically opportunistic move after the restart to pass Sainz for fourth into Turn 4.
The rest of the race was about a long, slow chase of Leclerc, initially leaking a little time and then coming back at the Ferrari driver late in the stint. But while the Aston Martin ultimately looked marginally the quicker car over a long stint, Leclerc stayed just out of reach despite Alonso’s late surge.
Verdict: Another formidable weekend, despite DRS troubles.
Started: 7th Finished: 9th
Norris was the class of the midfield pack in Baku, although circumstances conspired against him in sprint qualifying, where he didn’t have a set of new softs to use in SQ3. Admittedly, that was by design, but the gamble on using softs in the sprint backfired badly. Norris soon faded thanks to unexpected graining and headed to the pits, condemning him to a lowly finish.
But the main events showcased how effective he was in the upgraded McLaren, which the team reckoned was two or three tenths of a second quicker. Seventh in the main qualifying session could have been even higher had he been able to pick up a good tow but gave him the perfect platform for the race.
There, he effectively led the midfield throughout even though the out-of-sync Ocon and Hulkenberg were ahead of him for most of the race. Ninth place might not sound like much, but it was as high as a Mclaren could have finished.
Verdict: Put the midfield-leading McLaren where it needed to be.
Started: 2nd Finished: 2nd
Verstappen wasn’t 100% at ease with the Red Bull throughout the weekend which, coupled with the fact the car struggles to switch its front tyres on in qualifying, resulted in second in the main qualifying session. He felt he could have beaten Leclerc to pole in sprint qualifying, but for a moment in the middle sector that left him third behind Perez.
His sprint race was defined by the damage picked up in the first-lap scrape with Russell. But while his frustration was understandable, he perhaps would have been better off giving way in that scrap given both the stakes and the car’s advantage once into steady-state running on a race stint.
But a superb restart meant he dispatched Russell after the safety car period, even though he could do nothing about Leclerc and Perez ahead.
He had control of the grand prix after breezing past Leclerc early on, but the stop just before the safety car while under pressure from his team-mate handed the advantage to Perez. Verstappen couldn’t do anything about his team-mate, and it wasn’t until the closing stages of the race that he was better in synch with the car thanks to various tweaks with the available tools.
Regardless of the safety car misfortune, he’d have likely come under threat from Perez in the second stint.
Verdict: Good, but not quite to his normal sky-high standard.
Started: 5th Finished: 6th
With the Mercedes less competitive in Baku than it was in Australia, Hamilton was subdued outside of the car but effective in it. He was slightly disappointed with his final lap in Friday qualifying, although the Mercedes was about where it should have been. In SQ3, he struggled a little with the rear end and the lack of a tow, which left him sixth and two places behind Russell, who Hamilton was generally a little quicker than.
Alonso picked off Hamilton in the sprint, leaving him seventh, with the Aston Martin driver about to repeat the trick in the grand prix before Hamilton pitted for hards on lap nine as the wave of undercut threat advanced behind him. That proved costly, relegating Hamilton to 10th when the safety car was deployed.
He made short work of recovering, dispatching Hulkenberg, Ocon, Stroll and Russell in short order then embarked on a chase of Sainz that occupied him for the rest of the race given that even with the DRS and the Ferrari driver’s struggles it wasn’t possible to mount an attack.
Verdict: Only SQ3 underachievement counts against the stronger Mercedes driver.
Started: 11th Finished: 8th
Russell was the slightly less polished of the Mercedes drivers, although showed what he was capable of with a strong qualifying performance for the sprint then his combative first-lap battle with Verstappen in the subsequent race.
But the Q2 error that led to his elimination, mediocre safety-car restarts in both races and the fact his underlying pace seemed marginally behind that of Hamilton, mean this wasn’t an entirely satisfactory weekend.
While he couldn’t have finished higher in the sprint despite slipping from second to fourth, there was a better result on offer in the race given the timing of the safety car allowed him to jump from ninth to sixth. But then came the restart.
“I just made a mess of the restart,” said Russell. “I defended from Lance, almost went into the back of Fernando, ran wide, got my tyres dirty. Ultimately, that’s the reason Lance and Lewis got by. From then on it was line astern.”
Verdict: Good, but with a few too many rough edges.
Started: 12th Finished: 16th
Albon’s speed was once again impressive in the Williams, sufficient to be midfield-leading in qualifying. He didn’t quite deliver the Q3 place that was achievable in the main qualifying session, which he blamed on a rear snap while going around Sainz. But he did in sprint qualifying to take an impressive seventh on the grid.
The sprint went about as well as could be expected with Stroll inevitably passing him in the faster Aston Martin. That left Albon a frustrated, pointless ninth but with reason to be very satisfied having achieved the best result possible.
First-lap wing damage sustained in contact with Piastri at Turn 2 ruined his grand prix. Perhaps his car positioning was a little optimistic, although he perhaps didn’t realise Bottas was on the McLaren’s outside. The slight damage and pre-safety car pitstop meant he spent most of the race in de facto 12th place, although he only picked up that position once Ocon and Hulkenberg made their inevitable pitstops.
Verdict: On top of the car, but a little unfortunate at times.
Start: 8th Finished: 10th
Tsunoda’s weekend improved dramatically after the nadir of tagging the wall in free practice, qualifying a superb eight on Friday. His soft tyre use came at a cost, meaning he wouldn’t have been able to run in SQ3 had he made it that far, but badly-timed yellow and red flags meant he was eliminated in SQ1. The lap he was on when the session was stopped would have comfortably seen him through.
His sprint was a disaster. But while he was unhappy with team-mate De Vries for clipping his front wing exiting Turn 3, Tsunoda put himself in harm’s way with his positioning. The resulting damage led to his crash in the flat-out Turn 13. Given he was heading to the pits with damage it might have been wise to be a little more circumspect.
But Sunday was far less eventful as he chased Norris throughout and picked up 10th place on merit with an error-free drive.
Verdict: Sprint troubles mean a ranking hit on an otherwise strong weekend.
Started: 9th Finished: 7th
Stroll continued the pattern of his season by doing a neat and tidy job in the second Aston Martin, but without ever matching the spark of his team-mate.
Like Alonso, he was compromised by DRS troubles in the qualifying sessions, although Aston Martin’s sharp towing strategy ensured he made it through to SQ3 with his final attempt in the second lap of qualifying. Having been three-and-a-half tenths off on Friday, he was within a tenth on Saturday, although the difficulties make the direct pace comparison a little unreliable.
Stroll took seventh in the sprint having had to deal with midfield leaders Norris and Albon along the way. He jumped from ninth on the grid to seventh in the sprint, following the orthodox strategy and taking a safety car pitstop to consolidate his position. He then held position for the rest of the race, largely in no man’s land between the two Mercedes drivers.
Verdict: A decent weekend’s work.
Started: 10th Finished: 11th
Piastri’s weekend has to be seen in the context of his struggles with illness, which afflicted him throughout and prevented him from eating more than the occasional slice of toast. It’s to his credit that he battled on and produced very respectable pace in qualifying, just over three-tenths off Norris on Friday then within hundredths on Saturday despite not advancing from SQ2.
He drove tidily in both the sprint and the main race, surviving getting squeezed between Albon and Bottas when the Williams driver attacked on the inside of Turn 2 on the opening lap of the grand prix. Although he made an early switch to hards, that ultimately didn’t impact his position given the two places he lost were to Ocon and Hulkenberg, who had to stop later anyway. That meant a long afternoon running 11th in a car that wasn’t strong enough on the straights to make passes.
He did get past Hulkenberg late on but had no time to do anything about Tsunoda ahead.
Verdict: Considering his “physical journey”, did well to avoid mistakes and be respectably close to Norris.
Started: 16th Finished: 13th
Friday was a non-event for Magnussen thanks to a loss of fuel pressure after eight laps in practice and then an electrical problem that held him back in Q1. He put in a good performance on Saturday to get into SQ2, although fell behind team-mate Hulkenberg.
However, while Magnussen perhaps couldn’t quite match Hulkenberg’s single-lap speed, he was running a set-up that was more suitable for the race. In the sprint, he passed his team-mate on the way to 11th place – and it’s hard to see a Haas doing better this weekend – following that up with 13th in the grand prix.
He spent much of the grand prix chasing Albon’s Williams, although once again put the Haas broadly where it should have been given it needed some luck to be a threat to the points positions.
Verdict: Did a good job considering the Haas was a lower midfielder.
Started: Pitlane Finished: 17th
Outpaced Magnussen in both qualifying sessions, but he dropped like a stone in the sprint thanks to rear tyre graining. That led to set-up changes to move closer to Magnussen’s set-up and a pitlane start for the grand prix itself.
He started on hards, meaning that, along with Ocon, it made sense for Haas to leave him out under the early safety car. Hulkenberg spent the majority of the race in 10th place hoping for the race to be interrupted, but late on slipped behind Piastri and Albon as it became clear the hope was forlorn. A pitstop on the penultimate lap relegated him to 17th.
Hulkenberg did everything he could to make a losing strategy from the pitlane work, and a well-timed stoppage might have rewarded him with a points finish.
Verdict: Quick but will rue the initial set-up direction that, one way or another, compromised both races.
Started: Pitlane Finished: 18th
Ocon was on the backfoot after practice thanks to being kept in the garage as a precaution after Gasly’s crash. Given that and an Alpine floor upgrade the team had little opportunity to get on top of meant his brace of 13th places in qualifying was solid enough.
Unfortunately, a parc ferme breach to make set-up changes to tackle concerns about plank wear meant that he started both the sprint and the grand prix proper from the pits.
Inevitably, that meant he was a bit-part player in both races. However, by opting for what he called a “Hail Mary” strategy and running long on hards, he at least gave himself the chance of points should there have been a red flag or well-timed safety car.
Unfortunately, that didn’t come, but he drove tidily to hold ninth place for much of the race before the last-lap stop inevitably dropped him to 15th.
Verdict: Did nothing wrong, but had little chance to do much right.
Started: 15th Finished: DNF
Pipped by Bottas in main qualifying, he was 0.175s faster in sprint qualifying as he continued to show similar pace to his team-mate. But given the Alfa Romeo’s lack of pace, it was always going to be difficult to convert that into results.
Drove well in the sprint race to finish 12th, with soft-shod Bottas letting him past along the way, which perhaps gave a little false hope for the grand prix itself.
By the time he retired “as a precaution as we had rising temperatures and alarms on my dash”, he was on course for 14th place behind Magnussen, which was perfectly decent given the pace in the car at his disposal.
Verdict: Clean, effective weekend in an uncompetitive car.
Started: 13th Finished: 18th
Bottas didn’t have much going for him in Baku. He was marginally quicker than Zhou in Friday qualifying – arguably overachieving with 13th place – but marginally slower on Saturday in an Alfa Romeo that never looked like a points threat.
The gamble on softs in the sprint was a logical one given he started 17th. While he did a decent job to make them last, the degradation was simply too high and he slipped to 16th – holding on to beat fellow soft-starter Norris, who opted for a pitstop.
The race got away from him on the first lap when he was on the outside line into Turn 2 and Albon made it three wide with a move up the inside. That led to contact with Piastri, the car going into anti-stall and a rear-end hit from Magnussen.
In a damaged car, there was little to do except try an early stop, then another stop for fresh hards under the safety car six laps later just in case.
Verdict: A better weekend than the results suggest.
Started: 4th Finished: 5th
Baku has never been Sainz’s favourite circuit, but as he said on Friday evening he’s never been as far off as this weekend.
Sainz struggled for confidence on the brakes and in rotating the car at corner entry in both qualifying sessions, so within that context fourth on the grid for the grand prix and fifth for the sprint wasn’t bad. But the deficit to Leclerc – 0.813s and 0.555s in the two qualifying sessions – showed how difficult his weekend was.
He made the best of it in the races, holding fifth throughout the sprint and then repeating the result in the grand prix, albeit having been passed by Alonso along the way. He also admitted to being conservative on Sunday amid concerns of hitting the wall once onto the hard Pirellis, with his pace around half a second per lap off Leclerc’s.
Given the pace deficit to his team-mate, Sainz at least came away with some solid results but there’s no way around the fact that his pace was poor.
Verdict: Limited the damage on a “mentally stressful” weekend.
Started: 17th Finished: 13th
Gasly’s weekend didn’t really get started until the sprint race because of hydraulics problems in the upgraded Alpine that led to a fire in free practice, a crash in Q1 thanks to not braking positively enough for Turn 3 then an exhaust leak in SQ1. While two-thirds of those problems were out of his control, the qualifying crash was self-inflicted.
He gained four positions in the sprint, three of those at the expense of those in tyre strife and the other to Tsunoda’s first-lap crash, so he at least got his eye in for the main race.
Unfortunately, he was never in the hunt for points in the grand prix. He was the first to make a pitstop by gambling on a switch to hards after just five laps, but it didn’t pay off thanks to the subsequent safety car. A second stop for fresh hards didn’t help and meant he spent the race buried in the pack.
Verdict: Qualifying crash means he can’t put all his woes down to bad luck.
Started: 14th Finished: 16th
After three weekends of Q2 pace unfulfilled, Sargeant’s priority was to deliver on his qualifying promise in Baku. He did that by twice making the second phase of qualifying, although didn’t build from there as he went slower in Q2, then crashed in SQ2 on Saturday having allowed himself to be distracted by the Ferraris that were keeping out of his way. The resulting accident damage prevented him from starting the sprint.
Sargeant had an uneventful race. He held 14th early on but came in for hards with a proactive pitstop at the end of lap eight. The subsequent intervention of the safety car meant he took the restart 18th, with a lengthy spell stuck behind Zhou meaning he fell back from the group ahead.
Verdict: Another mixed bag, but the high points were good.
Started: 20th Finished: DNF
De Vries’s weekend started strongly with promising pace in practice, but that early promise soon turned to dust and last place in both qualifying sessions. He ended up in the wall on his first push lap in Q1 after braking too late for Turn 3 (this wasn’t connected to the initial brake-by-wire setting problem he had before leaving the pits), then on Saturday wasn’t able to set a serious laptime thanks to front tyre temperature problems, a trip up the escape road and the red flag.
After a solid run to 14th in the sprint race, albeit after a brush with his team-mate on the opening lap that shouldn’t be held against him too much, De Vries’s Sunday was disastrous as he clipped the inside wall at Turn 5 while chasing Magnussen and Zhou on lap 10.
Verdict: The weekend got badly away from him after an encouraging start.