Leclerc beats Verstappen in qualifying thriller for third straight Azerbaijan GP pole
Charles Leclerc claimed pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after getting the better of Max Verstappen in a thrilling, hotly-contested qualifying session on Friday evening, making it three poles on the bounce at the Baku City Circuit.
With the Red Bull faster in a straight line, but the Ferrari quicker through the corners, a fascinating battle developed over the course of an incident-packed qualifying hour on the shores of the Caspian Sea – and it was Leclerc who ultimately came out on top.
Incredibly, Verstappen and Leclerc posted identical 1m 40.445s lap times during their first Q3 runs, only for Leclerc to step forward with a 1m 40.203s on the decisive final laps, putting him 0.188s up on Verstappen.
With Leclerc adding to his 2021 and 2022 poles at the venue, Verstappen settling for second and Sergio Perez securing third in the other Red Bull, it was Carlos Sainz who took the ‘best of the rest’ spot, some eight tenths off the pace of his Ferrari team mate.
Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were fifth and sixth respectively for Mercedes and Aston Martin, McLaren’s Lando Norris and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda took eye-catching P7 and P8 spots, with Lance Stroll and Oscar Piastri rounding out the top 10 positions.
FORMULA 1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2023
|1 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari
|2 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing
|3 Sergio Perez PER Red Bull Racing
|4 Carlos Sainz SAI Ferrari
|5 Lewis Hamilton HAM Mercedes
While Hamilton featured in the top 10 shootout, it was an early qualifying bath for his team mate, George Russell, who had to settle for 11th on the grid, ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and the Williams of Alex Albon, who ran firmly inside the top 10 in Q1 but lamented traffic on his last Q2 lap.
Valtteri Bottas was the lead Alfa Romeo in 14th place, with Logan Sargeant securing the first Q2 appearance of his burgeoning F1 career en route to 15th – making up for drama-filled sessions in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia.
Zhou Guanyu missed the Q2 cut by just 0.020s after recovering from a spin and a near-miss with the barriers, leaving him 16th, while Haas lost both Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen at the first hurdle – the latter hindered by technical issues throughout Q1.
Pierre Gasly and Nyck de Vries will form the final row of the grid for Sunday’s race, with the Alpine and AlphaTauri drivers crashing out separately at Turn 3 in the opening phase – both incidents bringing out the red flags and interrupting the action.
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Leclerc leads a dramatic first phase
There was plenty of intrigue heading into Saturday evening’s qualifying session on the high-speed streets of Baku, with the preceding first practice featuring a host of incidents and costing several drivers valuable track time amid the revised F1 Sprint format.
Alpine were one team in a particular hurry between sessions as they pushed to carry out a power unit and gearbox change for Gasly after his fiery FP1 stoppage, and they impressively got the Frenchman’s car ready thanks to Ocon’s mechanics also playing their part.
With wind an ever-present challenge, and the nature of the track layout providing one of the biggest tests on the F1 calendar, it did not take long for drama to strike when Q1 got under way – Zhou going for a spin at Turn 1 and then surviving a wild moment through Turn 15.
Shortly afterwards, De Vries brought out the red flags by locking up heavily and running straight into the barriers at Turn 3. “Oh my God,” was the rookie’s anguished message over the radio, with his hopes of building on his encouraging first practice session dashed.
At this point, Verstappen – despite an initially loose headrest – led the way with a time of 1m 41.887s, a couple of tenths clear of Leclerc, with Alonso holding third from Norris, Hamilton and Hulkenberg. Perez was a distant eighth, having failed to get a clean lap in, while Sainz abandoned his first run and sat at the foot of the order.
After the marshals had removed De Vries’ car and cleared the track, Q1 resumed with just over 10 minutes left on the clock, but almost as soon as the action had restarted, the red flags were flown again when Gasly took too much speed into Turn 3, gave the outside wall another whack and littered debris all over the track.
Sainz was fortunate not to join Gasly and De Vries on the sidelines as he narrowly avoided the barriers with a spin of his own exiting Turn 1, before regaining his composure to make it back to the pits and and prepare for the second restart – seven-and-a-half minutes left to run.
There were plenty of changes at the top during the final runs to the chequered flag, with Leclerc finishing in P1 via a 1m 41.269s, just over a tenth clear of long-time leader Verstappen, and another chunk up on Alonso and Perez, who abandoned a much quicker lap when it was clear he would make it through.
Russell and Hamilton ended Q1 fifth and sixth in the Mercedes machines, while the high-flying Norris and Albon put their respective McLaren and Williams cars ahead of Sainz’s Ferrari and Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri, who completed the top 10 positions.
Sargeant progressed from Q1 for the first time in his F1 career with a strong run to 11th, slotting in front of fellow rookie Piastri, the other Aston Martin of Stroll, Bottas and Ocon. That meant Zhou, Hulkenberg, Magnussen – who battled an unspecified technical problem from start to finish – and the sidelined Gasly and De Vries dropped out.
Knocked out: Zhou, Hulkenberg, Magnussen, Gasly, De Vries
Q2 – Verstappen fastest as a Mercedes misses the cut
Following a short break in the pits, the remaining 15 drivers charged back out onto the track for the Q2 segment, with the sun beginning to set and cast growing shadows across the track, only adding to the challenge behind the wheel.
Perez built on his aborted lap at the end of Q1 to promptly go quickest on a 1m 41.131s, 0.062s up on Verstappen, with Leclerc also inside a tenth of the pace in third. Leclerc’s next lap – a 1m 41.037s – put him back in P1, while team mate Sainz’s efforts to make a similar improvement led to him running too deep at Turn 3 and taking to the run off.
Red Bull were not finished, though, with Verstappen lighting up the timing screens on his final lap – the reigning double world champion pumping in a 1m 40.822s to reclaim top spot ahead of Leclerc, with Perez holding P3 from Sainz and Alonso.
Norris continued to impress aboard his updated McLaren en route to sixth, in front of Tsunoda, Stroll and Piastri, while Hamilton grabbed the final spot in Q3 at the expense of team mate Russell, who swore over the radio when informed of his qualifying exit.
Ocon had to settle for 12th on a difficult day for Alpine, while Albon rued what might have been in 13th after traffic impacted his final lap. Bottas took 14th for Alfa Romeo, with the other Williams of Sargeant completing the Q2 order in 15th.
Knocked out: Russell, Ocon, Albon, Bottas, Sargeant
Q3 – Leclerc beats Verstappen in a pulsating conclusion
As the drivers emerged for the pole position shootout, a remarkable opening exchange saw Verstappen and Leclerc post matching 1m 40.445s lap times – the Red Bull man slotting ahead due to him crossing the line before his Ferrari rival.
But when the second runs got under way, Leclerc picked up the pace again to clock a blistering 1m 40.203s, with Verstappen only managing a 1m 40.391s and Perez a 1m40.495s, giving the Monegasque a third successive pole around the Baku track.
It also marked a much-needed change in fortunes for Leclerc, who was last on pole at the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix six months ago and endured painful retirements from two of the first three races this season.
Sainz was a long way off the pace of team mate Leclerc and the Red Bulls, finishing some eight-tenths back in fourth, followed by the Mercedes of Hamilton and Aston Martin of Alonso, who now faces a tall order to continue his 2023 podium streak.
Norris and Tsunoda were two of the stars of qualifying on their way to seventh and eighth, marking an upturn in performance for McLaren and AlphaTauri, with Stroll and Piastri the last of the Q3 runners.
“For sure I’m surprised,” said pole-sitter Leclerc. “We came into the weekend thinking that it would be a great weekend if we are ahead 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 that our race car is maybe still behind the Red Bulls, so it’s going to be difficult to keep the lead, but that’s the target.
“I’m really, really happy with the lap. It’s a very challenging weekend for us all [as] drivers, because [there’s] very little time to practice. We only had one FP1 and then you need to be straight on it [in qualifying]. But the feeling was good since the start, so I’m really, really happy.”
Azerbaijan will host the first F1 Sprint of the season on Saturday, with the new Sprint Shootout set to begin at 1230 local time, followed by the 100-kilometre Sprint race at 1730.
Head to the RACE HUB to find out how you can catch the action.