Charles Leclerc clinched an unlikely pole for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes delivered the most striking result. The world champion claimed second place in a remarkable turnaround after being way off the pace all weekend. It was enough to beat Red Bull’s Max Verstappen into third, albeit in a session that ended prematurely for the second race in a row because of drivers crashing out.
Leclerc’s perfectly judged lap was impressive. It is his and Ferrari’s second pole in a row after taking the top spot in Monaco, where it was he who hit the wall and ended the session. But behind him Hamilton and Mercedes were suddenly flying having floundered all weekend in Baku.
Hamilton trails Verstappen by four points in the world championship and expected to be under the cosh from Red Bull here, especially with the street circuit’s twisty, high-downforce middle sector. Red Bull had been quick all weekend and looked set to extend Verstappen’s lead. Instead the front of the grid promises a mighty tussle for every point on Sunday.
Mercedes lacked grip from the off in Baku, struggling to bring the tyres up to temperature. Hamilton was 11th in second practice and the team had no answers. In final practice on Saturday they attempted what the team principal, Toto Wolff, described as an “extreme” engineering programme. It paid off as they finally found the pace when it mattered.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings for us with the difficult experience we have gone through being out of the top ten,” said Hamilton. “It’s the biggest jump we have been able to make between P3 and quali. It was literally night and day with the car. We discovered something at the end of P3 and continued to push down on that. It’s a bit overwhelming and we are in for a much different race than we anticipated.”
Qualifying was a tight affair throughout, with the walls of Baku claiming three errant drivers even before Q3. Key to setting a fast lap was gaining a tow on the 1.37-mile straight, the longest on the F1 calendar. On the first hot runs in Q3 Valtteri Bottas went out in front of Hamilton to punch a hole for his teammate to slipstream. They both took an extra lap to warm their tyres, which put Ferrari in a perfect spot, with Leclerc tucked in for a tow behind Hamilton. He duly set a superb time of 1min 41.218sec, and when Hamilton followed he was two-tenths down on Leclerc’s time.
The final laps were set to be gripping until Yuki Tsunoda and Carlos Sainz crashed out and the red flags ended the running. Leclerc’s time stood but there was disappointment across the field that the drivers did not get a shot at completing their final quick laps. Sunday promises a feisty conclusion to the denied showdown: Red Bull and Mercedes are very close in race pace and Leclerc will be vulnerable as Hamilton and Verstappen go toe to toe again.
While they do so the war of words over the use of flexible wings rumbles on, even as the two protagonists at its heart remain relaxed enough to bring a sense of humour to the verbal sparring.
The controversy over the wings has hung over the weekend, with Red Bull one of the teams believed to be benefiting from the “bendy” rear wing which can improve top speed – a major gain on the straight in Baku. Wolff specifically cited it as one of the reasons Red Bull were so quick here and Mercedes may yet protest against its use in the race.
Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, has been bullish in his defence. He has insisted, correctly, that their wing passed all of the FIA’s previous tests to classify it as legal.
The two teams have argued back and forth all week. Horner hit back at Mercedes, suggesting they too were pushing the boundaries. “I think if I was Toto, with the front wing he’s got on his car, I’d keep my mouth shut,” he said. Wolff responded on Saturday, stating: “Christian is a bit of a windbag who wants to be on camera.”
After qualifying, their drivers suggested an altogether more entertaining solution, as the pair laughed off a rivalry that will be fierce once again as soon as the race starts. “We should get them in the ring,” said Hamilton.
Verstappen said: “I am all for a ring in F1 instead of penalties. It’s F1, everyone wants to win, everyone is competitive so it’s just natural, it’s good to read, a bit of fire behind it.”
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly was in fourth with Ferrari’s Sainz in fifth. Lando Norris finished in sixth for McLaren but was given a three-place grid penalty for failing to pit immediately when red flags were deployed. Sergio Pérez was in seventh for Red Bull. Tsunoda was in eighth and Fernando Alonso in ninth for Alpine, with Bottas in 10th.
Daniel Ricciardo ended the session when he hit the wall in Q2 and he finished in 13th place. Sebastian Vettel was in 11th for Aston Martin in front of the Alpine of Esteban Ocon. Kimi Räikkönen was in 14th for Alfa Romeo and Williams’ George Russell was in 15th.
Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll crashed in Q1 as did Antonio Giovinazzi in his Alfa Romeo. Both clipped a wall, causing the session to be red-flagged twice, and will start from the back row of the grid. Nicholas Latifi was in 16th for Williams, with Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin in 17th and 18th for Haas.