Red Bull have never taken pole position in Baku – and Charles Leclerc ensured that wait would continue as he unexpectedly set the pace in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. But can the Ferrari driver be a contender for the rest of the weekend? And where do his rivals sit? We present the key data ahead of the first F1 Sprint of the year…

    Leclerc masters Baku once more to give Ferrari hope

    There’s just something about the streets of Baku that bring out the very best in Leclerc, the Monegasque securing his first pole of the year and third successive in Baku with a stellar performance in qualifying.

    READ MORE: Leclerc beats Verstappen in qualifying thriller for third straight Azerbaijan GP pole

    It was even more surprising given Leclerc said on Thursday that he expected this was going to be one of the most challenging weekends of the year for the team.

    According to our ideal lap data, even if everyone put their best mini sectors together, Leclerc would still have ended top of the pile, though admittedly Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen would have been closer.

    Ferrari were quickest of all in the slower corners and only a fraction behind Red Bull in the medium turns and the long straights that dominate the Azerbaijan street track.

    There’s no doubt the red cars will struggle to keep the Red Bulls at bay come Sunday, especially Carlos Sainz, who has struggled to match his Ferrari team mate for pace his weekend.

    But our race simulation data (a combination of pre-event simulations and the little multiple lap runs drivers did in the only practice session of the day) suggests that it might be closer than it has been all season.

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    Red Bull remain a force to be reckoned with

    For the first time in 2023, a Red Bull will not start on pole position, but such is the team’s confidence in the RB19, they were unperturbed to be only second and third.

    Verstappen alluded to putting greater focus on preparing the car for race trim, with the F1 Sprint – featuring a revised format – and the Grand Prix in mind, while he also pointed out that Red Bull tend to have a better car on high fuel than all of their rivals.

    READ MORE: ‘We’ve got a very good race car’ – Verstappen and Perez confident of taking the fight to Leclerc after missing out on pole

    Red Bull were quickest in the medium speed corners – but only by a fraction – and were beaten only by Aston Martin in terms of straight-line speed.

    Perez is a Baku specialist and fancies his chances of a big result this weekend, while Verstappen retains confidence that he is in good shape to fight for victories on all fronts.

    They will take some beating – but based on what we saw on Friday in Baku, it’s a more slender advantage than they’ve had for most of the year, suggesting they might could have a bit of a fight on their hands.

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    Mercedes fall back from Australia pace

    Mercedes were unable to replicate the shock pace they displayed in Australia, where the Silver Arrows briefly ran one-two, with Lewis Hamilton finishing second in Baku.

    Trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin admitted they didn’t manage to find a good starting set-up for the only practice session of the weekend – and that hurt them.

    READ MORE: Hamilton hails ‘really sweet lap’ to grab top five grid slot as Russell eyes fightback after Q2 exit

    Both Hamilton and George Russell struggled with the ride and balance, having overcome minor brake issues at the start of the weekend.

    Data shows they were lacking to Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren in the slow corners. Versus Ferrari, that gap was nearly a second.

    However, they recovered to still be very much in the mix with the likes of Aston Martin and one of the Ferraris – and Hamilton’s lap in Q2 grabbed him P5, which would have been a place lower had Fernando Alonso nailed his lap.

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    McLaren upgrade looks decent

    While Alpine failed to get a read on their significant upgrade for the Baku weekend, rivals McLaren clocked up the laps – and generated some very exciting pace with their long-awaited package.

    This is the car the team had hoped to deliver in time for the start of the season, but a late change in development direction rendered that an impossible target to achieve.

    HIGHLIGHTS: Watch the action from a thrilling qualifying in Baku as Leclerc stuns Red Bull to take pole

    Our data suggests the upgrade, which includes a heavily revised floor, has given them between 0.2 and 0.3 seconds per lap – and in a very tight midfield pack, it explains why they were able to get two cars into Q3 for the first time this season.

    Their pace in the slow corners was particularly impressive – only Ferrari and Red Bull were better, while they were very much contenders in the medium speed stuff, offsetting that lacklustre performance on the straights.

    As you’d expected, the team aren’t getting carried away – but there is no doubt the British operation have made a step forward – and very much should be a factor in the rest of the weekend regarding points.

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