Leclerc takes shock pole in dramatic Baku qualifying session as FIVE drivers crash out
Charles Leclerc delivered some impressive pace and benefitted from a tow from Lewis Hamilton to take a sensational pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix in what was a thrilling qualifying session that saw five crashes and four red flags.
It comes just a couple of weeks after he took pole in his home race in Monaco, only to be forced to retire before the race had even started with a mechanical issue caused by his crash in qualifying – with reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton bouncing back from a poor Friday to join the Ferrari on the front row in Baku.
Hamilton made the decision to switch to a low downforce rear wing ahead of qualifying, having struggled to find any performance on a single lap in the preceding practice sessions, and it paid off as he starts second for the third consecutive race in Baku.
Max Verstappen was furious with third, despite it being his best start in Baku, the Dutchman frustrated by the number of stoppages for crashes as it meant he was unable to maximise the pace of his Red Bull, which for much of the weekend has looked like the class of the field.
FORMULA 1 AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2021
|1 Charles Leclerc LEC Ferrari||1:41.218|
|2 Lewis Hamilton HAM Mercedes||1:41.450|
|3 Max Verstappen VER Red Bull Racing||1:41.563|
|4 Pierre Gasly GAS AlphaTauri||1:41.565|
|5 Carlos Sainz SAI Ferrari||1:41.576|
Pierre Gasly made it four constructors in the top four, the AlphaTauri driver choosing to do just one run in the final segment of qualifying and utilising a largely clear track – and a small tow from team mate Yuki Tsunoda to equal his best ever grid position.
There was drama in the closing stages as Tsunoda crashed at Turn 3, forcing everyone to abort their second runs and bringing an early end to session, with the Japanese driver ending up a career-best eighth on the grid.
Carlos Sainz was following Tsunoda on the road and locked up heavily, losing the car and sliding down the escape road, damaging his front wing as well as the right rear of his Ferrari, which could mean there’s a chance his gearbox is damaged.
McLaren’s Lando Norris went sixth, having seen his team mate Daniel Ricciardo crash out in Q2, with Sergio Perez – who had points during qualifying looked like he had the pace to take pole – a disappointing seventh.
Fernando Alonso outqualified his Alpine team mate Esteban Ocon for the first time this season with eighth, with Bottas – who opted to keep the higher downforce configuration of rear wing – bottom of the top 10 pile.
The session saw four red flags in total – following crashes for Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovinazzi, Ricciardo and Tsunoda – which ties the 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix for the most red flags in a session.
Q1 – Hamilton quickest, as Stroll and Giovinazzi crash out
Charles Leclerc was the first driver to get a time on the board – and for a while, he was the only one courtesy of a red flag caused by Lance Stroll, who got it all wrong at Turn 15, locking up and hitting the wall hard.
The impact crippled the front right suspension, the Canadian banging the steering wheel in frustration as he coasted to a halt at the side of the track, his session over.
WATCH: Drama as Stroll crashes out of qualifying in opening minutes in Azerbaijan
The pause in the action played into the hands of Williams, who had crucial extra time to complete an engine change for George Russell, after the Briton suffered a water pump leak in final practice, and get him out on track.
Red Bull wasted little time heading out when the session resumed, with Verstappen going quickest, ahead of team mate Sergio Perez – who lost three tenths to the Dutchman in the middle sector.
The Ferrari duo of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc filed in third and fourth – but several cars were forced to abort laps again when Antonio Giovinazzi crashed in the same place as Stroll, in a near carbon copy incident, bringing out another red flag with nine minutes to go.
WATCH: Giovinazzi crashes in Baku qualifying, just moments after red flag for identical Stroll shunt
On the restart, Hamilton moved to the top of the timesheets – on what was his second run on the same set of soft tyres – demoting Verstappen to second. At the other end of the field, Nicholas Latifi was kicked out, along with the Haas pairing of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin,.
Stroll ended bottom of the pile, in what is his second successive Q1 exit in Baku and second Q1 elimination of the season, one place behind Giovinazzi who was looking quick having been seventh fastest in FP2 and reached Q3 in Baku in 2019.
Meanwhile, the stewards said they would investigate a potential infringement by Lando Norris during a red flag after the end of qualifying.
Knocked out: Latifi, Schumacher, Mazepin, Stroll, Giovinazzi
Q2 – Ricciardo crashes as Red Bull rise to the top
Perez, who was furious that Aston Martin released Vettel into his path as they all rushed to get out of their respective garages at the start of the session, set the early pace, with Hamilton slotting into second, just 0.004 adrift.
But Verstappen snuck ahead with his second timed lap on the same set of softs, the Dutchman going just 0.04s clear. Charles Leclerc popped into fourth, with the top four cars separated by just 0.034s.
Esteban Ocon, Tsunoda, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Raikkonen and George Russell found themselves in the drop zone after the first runs. But Tsunoda pumped in a cracking lap next time around to slot into fourth, just 0.029s off the pace. Incredibly, the whole field was split by just 1.1s.
As the field headed out for their second runs, Daniel Ricciardo locked up at Turn 3, sliding into the wall on exit to damage the front right corner and bring out the red flag. That forced everyone else to abort their laps – and with just 90 seconds on the clock, the race director chose not to restart the session as there wouldn’t be enough time to set another lap.
READ MORE: 'I don't feel great, but it happens' - Ricciardo philosophical after Q2 crash in Baku
That meant Vettel was the best-placed driver to get knocked out, the German missing out by just three hundredths of a second, with Ocon, Ricciardo, Raikkonen and Russell – who maintained his record of reaching Q2 in every session this year - joining him in an early bath,.
Knocked out: Vettel, Ocon, Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Russell
Q3 - Leclerc makes the most of a tow before another red flag
Leclerc picked up a tow from Hamilton to vault to the top of the timesheets after the first runs, three tenths ahead of Verstappen with the two Mercedes opting to do an extra warm-up lap before going for their first real timed lap.
Such a strategy worked well for Hamilton, who went second quickest just over a tenth behind Leclerc, with Bottas not gaining so much and going eighth – slowest of all with the two AlphaTauris opting to wait to the final four minutes to do their first runs.
Gasly set the fastest first sector of all, following up with two solid sectors that was good enough to go fourth, with Tsunoda – making the first Q3 appearance of his career - slotting into eighth.
As the session headed for its crescendo, Tsunoda ended up in the wall at Turn 3, with Sainz locking up and spinning off down the adjacent escape road, twice kissing the wall. That forced the race director to bring out the red flag, and with so little time left, the session was halted early.
Bottas ended up slowest of all, for what is his lowest start since the 2019 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, when he started last due to a power unit change. He can take hope from the fact Ricciardo won from that position in 2017, in what is often a chaotic race.
The key quote
“I did not expect to be as competitive as we were today,” said pole-sitter Leclerc. “I think I was improving again with the red flag, but it’s like this. I’m on pole. I’m happy.”
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix kicks off at 1600 local time, which is 1300 UTC. Leclerc leads the way, but Hamilton and Verstappen will offer a significant threat in a Grand Prix that usually delivers drama.