AZERBAIJAN GP – Charles Leclerc takes a hattrick of poles in Baku two-tenths ahead of Max Verstappen
Charles Leclerc has denied Red Bull a hattrick of pole positions in the first four races after being Max Verstappen by almost two tenths to take pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver started the middle leg of the season in perfect form, on his first run in Q3 he looked to have the slight edge going fastest in all three sectors on his final run.
Ferrari went into this weekend following the spring break looking to progress following a tough start to 2023. Leclerc first matched Verstappen on the first run in Q3 before pulling ahead of the Red Bull on the final run. But perhaps showing the gap is starting to close and not as sizeable as it looked after qualifying in Bahrain.
The new format means he will start Sunday’s race on pole, rather than the sprint on Saturday. Leclerc appears to bounce back from his worst start to a season following the extended easter break as he looks to kick start his season. Verstappen was looking to be the favourite having topped practice on Friday lunchtime, but couldn’t go faster than the Ferrari.
Ferrari hoping that this kickstarts their season and a challenge to Red Bull, something which had looked difficult as teammate Sainz was forty points behind going into this weekend. Leclerc made it clear he was in the hunt for pole as only a very late Verstappen lap dislodged the Ferrari from top spot, while street-circuit specialist Perez was also displaying a strong pace.
Verstappen was just over a tenth faster than his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, both will be looking to bounce back and prove Red Bull are still the team to beat in tomorrows qualifying for the sprint. Red Bull will however be aware of the advantage they have had in race trim having looked unbeatable in the first three races, Carlos Sainz was fourth. the Spaniard was just over half a second down, but appeared mystified as to why he struggling having not changed much since Melbourne.
Leclerc said, “For sure I am surprised [with pole]. We came into the weekend thinking it would be great if we were in front of Aston and Mercedes in qualifying and at the end we are on pole, so it’s a really good surprise. We must not forget, our race car is maybe still behind the Red Bull, so it will be difficult to keep the lead, but that’s the target. And really, really happy with that lap.”
Verstappen said “It’s really tough around here to really put the whole lap together. On the second run, we tried something different on the out lap which maybe was not ideal for the lap time at the end. Around here, it’s really hard. Nevertheless, we’re P2 and we know we have very good race cars. It’s not bad.”
Lewis Hamilton was fifth half a ten ahead of Fernando Alonso after qualifying Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff explained it was about doing the best they can this weekend in Baku and next weekend in Miami before the upgrade for the start of the European season at Imola.
Hamilton’s fifth place was a strong result in the end for a Mercedes team who had appeared to be struggling for speed until the final session of qualifying, the Baku track exposing the car’s weaknesses. He had been three-tenths off Alonso in Q2 but when it mattered.
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s teammate George Russell was the surprise casualty of Q2, the second Mercedes missed out on the top ten by four thousandths. The two had looked evenly matched in Q1 and Q2, while the seven-time champion just got through Russell wasn’t as lucky missing out by fine margins which have defined qualifying in the mid-pack all season.
Mercedes have looked better all season in race trim and will be hoping that they can turn it around overnight going into sprint qualifying and continue to make progress. But they didn’t look as strong as they did in qualifying at the last month with them both at risk of a Q2 elimination.
McLaren look to be the team who has made the biggest jump over the break, Norris says they have gained two-tenths thanks to a new floor. Norris was three hundredths behind Alonso, while Oscar Piastri matched the time of Lance Stroll going tenth. Yuki Tsunoda three tenths behind Norris having gained a tow knocking out Russell at the end of Q2.
Stroll struggled to unlock the full potential of the Aston Marti thanks to an unresponsive DRS that left him ninth, setting the same time as Piastri. Russell however was shuffled out of qualifying by Piastri and Tsunoda, the Englishman unable to respond as the time ran out in Q2.
But he did stay ahead of Esteban Ocon, the Frenchman brushing the wall as Alpine endured another tough start to the weekend. Ocon’s teammate Pierre Gasly missed out on most of practice and then crashed into the wall at Turn Three bringing out the red flag after tearing off his right-hand sidepod and part of his rear wing.
Most of the build-up to this weekend’s revised format asked the question would drivers take a cautious approach? No the reputation for bedlam in Baku was never far away, Nyck De Vries the first casualty of the sessions crashes at Turn Three.
Gasly, who had earlier caused a red flag in practice when his car caught fire, crashed at the same corner where De Vries had been caught out. A very frustrating day for Gasly and Alpine, having repaired the car following his crash in practice the team face another repair following the fire.
Alex Albon and Logan Sargent both got through to Q2, Albon going thirteenth over half a second clear of his teammate. The Williams duo spilt by the Alfa Romeo of Valtteri Bottas, who was over a tenth faster than the American. But for Sargent heading to his home race in Florida next week, making it through to Q2 for the first time is a positive step.
Guanyu Zhou fastest of the drivers knocked out in Q1, the Alfa Romeo duo being pushed back into the drop zone by Piastri and Ocon. The Chinese driver two hundredths behind Ocon at the end of the session before being shuffled out along with Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg ruining his chances of escaping the drop zone with a poor first sector, that left him nearly a tenth behind the Alfa Romeo. His Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen seven hundredths off after an electrical issue forced him to stop on track, ahead of Gasly and De Vries.