Red Bull Motorsports
With back-to-back wins for the first time in his Formula One career almost in the bag, Verstappen suffered a spectacular high-speed rear tyre failure with five laps to go, the Dutchman fortunately escaping unscathed from a 330kph shunt that speared him towards the outside wall of the circuit. As Verstappen went to the circuit's medical centre to be checked over, it seemed like his championship lead was disappearing through no fault of his own. But then things really got weird.
Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Pérez used a superb start from sixth on the grid and some prodigious early-race pace to slot himself into second ahead of Verstappen's title rival Lewis Hamilton, and the pair lined up on the grid for a two-lap dash to the finish after the debris from Verstappen's crash was cleared away. But Hamilton overshot the first corner with cold brakes, leaving Pérez to saunter to a second career win; 15th place and no points for Hamilton saw Verstappen, remarkably, retain his four-point championship lead.
The drama didn’t end there, with Pérez's car barely making it around the first corner of his victory lap back to the pits before the Mexican was instructed to park up due to a race-long hydraulic issue so critical that he may not have been able to complete one more slow-speed lap. With one car in bits and the other left out on track, the post-race pit lane was a bizarre picture – but for Red Bull, an unexpectedly pretty one.
Hamilton's non-score, allied with a largely anonymous 12th-place result for his team-mate Valtteri Bottas, enabled Red Bull to stretch its constructors' championship lead from one point to 26 as the dust settled on a race that, even by Baku standards, had an outsized number of twists and turns.
Want more? Second place went to Sebastian Vettel for Aston Martin after the four-time world champion started from 11th on the grid, while Scuderia AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly took his third career podium with third, the Frenchman winning a thrilling late-race battle with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, who started from pole position.
Here's what went down on a madcap afternoon on the Azerbaijan capital's city streets.
Checo picks up the pieces
Pérez was fastest in Friday practice and had form on the board in Baku – he'd finished third at the circuit twice previously – which explained why he was, in his own words, "pissed off" after qualifying seventh on Saturday in a wild session that featured four red flag stoppages. But it was then that his luck changed.
Promoted a position on the grid for a qualifying red flag infringement by McLaren's Lando Norris, Pérez was third seven laps into the race, and then uncorked some searing pace that saw him vault Hamilton after he made his pit stop on Lap 13. As Verstappen controlled proceedings at the front, Pérez had Hamilton's measure lap after lap, and Red Bull's long wait for a 1-2 finish – last achieved by the team in Malaysia in 2016 – looked a certainty until Verstappen's spectacular exit.
With the pressure on and with his car compromised, Pérez kept his cool and added a second victory to his win at the Sakhir Grand Prix late last year – and improved to third in the drivers' championship as a result.
"Normally Baku is pretty crazy, but …," he laughed afterwards.
"I had a poor start and he (Hamilton) was alongside me but I was like 'I'm not going to miss it' – I braked as late as I possibly can and it didn't work for him. This is definitely a strong boost of confidence for myself and for the team."
Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner was ecstatic with Pérez's performance, joking that the roller coaster of emotions after Verstappen's crash to Pérez crossing the line aged him "about 20 years".
"He's a wily driver and a canny racer, and he races really, really well," Horner said.
"His pace was stunning in the race. He was nursing a hydraulic issue, we were really concerned that the car wouldn’t get to the end of the race. We thought we could only lose when there was the restart, but it all worked out and Sergio did tremendously well. He's won that on merit – unlucky for Max, but (Sergio) held Lewis at bay all the way."
Max sees the silver lining
Verstappen had reluctantly come to terms with the likelihood of leaving Baku with a sizeable championship deficit to Hamilton when his phone started buzzing as he was being checked over in the medical centre – he couldn't see the circuit from there, but his screen told him all he needed to know.
It was an unexpected bit of good news on a day where he should have had more to celebrate, Verstappen controlling the race after taking the lead on Lap 11 and retaining it after Hamilton's pit stop. It looked like he would take back-to-back wins for the first time in his career after his victory at Monaco last time out, but while that milestone will have to wait, he could console himself with not losing out to his biggest rival.
"I didn't feel anything until the moment I suddenly went to the right," Verstappen said of his accident.
"The tyre just blew off the rim and it's not a nice impact to have, it's quite a dangerous place to have a tyre blow out at that speed.
"Up until then, we had a very strong race. We were fully in control. It's very disappointing what happened, we missed a lot of points and we could have opened up that gap in the championship, so to have this happen so close to the end is very frustrating."
"All is fine with me – the car, not so much…".
Gasly speechless, Tsunoda strong
Gasly is never usually short of a word, but struggled to find the right ones after AlphaTauri's best race of the season, his 15 points and six for seventh-placed team-mate Yuki Tsunoda seeing the squad move up to sixth in the constructors' standings.
"I don't even know what to say, that was such an insane race," Gasly said after his first points finish in three attempts in Baku.
"The last two laps were super intense – we had to get the elbows out! I had to go for it because I really wanted that podium. The car has been incredible all weekend and we showed in every session we were there. Qualifying was mega and I didn't know if we could fight for that position or the podium, but in the end we did it."
Tsunoda had his best weekend of his fledgling F1 career, making Q3 for the first time on Saturday and starting seventh despite a late shunt in Q3, and then finishing in the same position after 51 hectic laps of a circuit he'd never even seen before, let alone raced on.
Vettel's reminder, Stroll's shunt
Hamilton's disappearance from the front after his late error snapped a 54-race run of points-scoring finishes, and saw his old sparring partner Vettel achieve his best result in his past 25 Grands Prix along with Aston Martin's first podium on its return to Grand Prix racing.
It was some welcome good news for the German and his team, and massaged some of the pain from team-mate Lance Stroll's exit, a left-rear tyre failure similar to Verstappen's pitching the Canadian into the wall on Lap 30 along the start-finish straight.
Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso had the best result of his F1 comeback with sixth for Alpine, while another former world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, scored his first point of the season for Alfa Romeo with 10th.
Next stop: The French Riviera
Coming up after an action-packed race in Azerbaijan? The return of the French Grand Prix (June 20) after a year off the schedule, the Paul Ricard Circuit playing host to round seven of the season as part of a run of four races in five weekends.
Hamilton has held sway in France since the race returned to the calendar after a 10-year hiatus in 2018, but as Baku proved, predicting anything with any confidence in 2021 is close to impossible – and F1 fans couldn't be happier.