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Charles Leclerc demands Ferrari fix issues as Max Verstappen capitalises in Baku

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen celebrates victory in Baku (Sergei Grits/AP).
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen celebrates victory in Baku (Sergei Grits/AP).

A wounded Charles Leclerc has demanded Ferrari eliminate their reliability woes to prevent this season’s Formula One battle from becoming a one-horse race.

Max Verstappen extended his championship lead by driving unopposed to victory at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after Leclerc and team-mate Carlos Sainz failed to finish on a desperate afternoon for Ferrari in Baku.

Leclerc was bidding to avenge Ferrari’s flat-footed strategy in Monaco a fortnight ago which cost him victory at his home event.

But on lap 20 of 51, Leclerc’s engine expired and he retired from the lead. A power unit failure at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya last month means the Monegasque has now failed to finish in two of his last three appearances.

Leclerc led Verstappen by as many as 46 points after the third round in Australia – the scene of his last triumph – on April 10.

But, ahead of next weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve – the ninth race of 22 this season – Leclerc trails the Dutchman by 34 points in the championship standings.

Sunday’s race could indeed prove pivotal in Verstappen’s quest to win back-to-back crowns.

Sergio Perez finished second to complete a Red Bull one-two and is now the closest challenger to Verstappen after he leapfrogged Leclerc in the standings.

The Mexican, who took a bonus point for the speediest lap, is 21 points adrift of his Red Bull team-mate.

George Russell claimed his third podium finish for Mercedes in third, while team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who complained of severe back pain in his jumpy Silver Arrows, took fourth.

“It hurts,” said Leclerc, 24. “We really need to look into that for it not to happen again.

“I can’t really find the right words to describe what has happened. It is just very, very disappointing.

“We were fast and didn’t have big problems in the first part of the season. But now it seems we have more problems even if we haven’t made massive changes to the car. It is difficult to understand.”

Leclerc delivered a mighty lap in qualifying to put his Ferrari at the front of the pack, only to lose out to Perez on the short stampede to the opening corner.

Perez moved two seconds clear of Leclerc, with Verstappen occupying the Monegasque’s mirrors.

At the start of the ninth lap, cue the first of two Ferrari blows as Sainz parked his scarlet machine following a hydraulic failure.

Out came the virtual safety car, and in came Leclerc for a change of tyres. Perez and Verstappen elected against stopping for fresh rubber before the Red Bull drivers traded positions on lap 15.

Verstappen took the lead into the opening bend with Perez offering little resistance.

“No fighting,” was the order from the Red Bull pit wall in a clear sign that Verstappen is the team’s number one man.

Leclerc held a 12-second lead over Verstappen after the world champion stopped for new boots on lap 20, but, moments later, Leclerc’s race was over, and with it, possibly his championship dreams too.

In a plume of white smoke Leclerc limped back to the pits. The pained expression on the face of team principal Mattia Binotto – the man tasked with ending Ferrari’s 15-year championship drought – spoke volumes.

The Ferrari pit wall soon became a ghost town as Verstappen cruised to the flag, claiming the fifth win of his championship defence.

Max Verstappen takes the chequered flag in Baku
Max Verstappen takes the chequered flag in Baku (Hamad Mohammed/AP).

“I would always say s*** happens,” said Verstappen in an unsympathetic response to Leclerc’s car failure.

“That’s racing. It happened to me, it happened to many people in the past and unfortunately it’s happening to Charles now.

“If I would be in the same situation I would also be disappointed. That’s very normal, but it’s about how you come out of it.

“You learn from it, you don’t like it and you are angry, but you turn it around. You have to prevent these issues from happening.”

Russell was able to take advantage of Ferrari’s double DNF to move up two places from his grid slot of fifth on another composed day for the young Briton.

Hamilton started seventh and fell down the order after his opening pit stop. But the seven-time world champion moved back ahead of Sebastian Vettel following a spin for the Aston Martin driver, before fighting his way past Alpine’s Esteban Ocon.

Hamilton also made light work of Pierre Gasly in the closing stages to take fourth. Vettel recovered to sixth, one place ahead of Fernando Alonso. Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris finished eighth and ninth respectively for McLaren.