BAKU, April 29 (Reuters) - Stunned Mexican Sergio Perez said he put in the best laps of his Formula One career to get Force India back on the podium on Sunday.
The 28-year-old finished third in a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix for his best finish since he occupied the same place in the inaugural race at the Baku street circuit in 2016.
“I think today I did the best two laps of my whole career,” Perez declared after a roller-coaster afternoon that started when he was shunted from behind by Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams on the opening lap.
That left him with a broken front wing, after hitting Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, and forced him to pit for immediate repairs.
Perez was also dealt a five-second penalty for a breach of safety car conditions and yet still came from the back to beat Ferrari’s title challenger Sebastian Vettel to the lowest step of the podium thanks to safety car interludes.
“The last two laps with Sebastian behind, with cold tyres, it was so difficult,” Perez said.
“I was on the supersoft tyre. I had to keep a very strong rhythm, trying to keep close to (Ferrari’s Kimi) Raikkonen, to make sure that Sebastian didn’t get close enough, and in the end we did a real...I’m speechless.”
Before Sunday, Force India, fourth overall last season, had scored one point and were languishing near the bottom with Williams.
In one jump, thanks to Perez’s haul of 15 points, they leapt from ninth to sixth.
Perez said the result was the fruit of many things coming together but he had no illusions about Force India’s true status.
“I think our battle is not here, to be honest, it’s the midfield and finally we got plenty of points today with this podium, that we can close up the gap to the cars ahead, to the Renaults,” he said. “I think we were definitely the fourth-best team this weekend.”
While Perez enjoyed his eighth career podium finish, French team mate Esteban Ocon retired on the opening lap after a collision with Raikkonen.
“I have to say that between the two of them, at the end of the first lap I was feeling rather disappointed. I thought we were in for another difficult day,” Force India deputy principal Bob Fernley told Reuters. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)