A big crash for Charles Leclerc in the second part of qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw the driver who had looked a cert for pole position in Baku ruled out of contention, leaving Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas to claim his second consecutive P1 grid slot as Mercedes locked out the front row.
Leclerc got it wrong as he was entering the Turn 8 corner that brings the cars around the castle section of the circuit, ending up embedded in the same barrier where Williams’ Robert Kubica had finished Q1, and causing the biggest qualifying upset so far this season.
That left Sebastian Vettel to defend the honour of Ferrari in Q3, but the German could only manage P3, 0.302s adrift of Bottas’ pace despite the Scuderia’s apparent speed advantage this season.
Bottas was ahead of team mate Lewis Hamilton by just 0.059s, while Max Verstappen will line up in P4 for Red Bull, his best-ever start in Baku.
Behind, the trio of Racing Point’s Sergio Perez in fifth, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat in sixth and McLaren’s Lando Norris all did fine jobs, while Antonio Giovinazzi secured his best qualifying position of the season in eighth, but will lose that when he has a 10-place grid penalty applied for taking a new Control Electronics element on his engine – with his team mate Kimi Raikkonen inheriting the place.
Leclerc will start the race in ninth, having set a time good enough to make it through to Q3 before he crashed and benefitting from the grid drop for Giovinazzi, while the second McLaren of Carlos Sainz will jump up to 10th.
QUALIFYING HIGHLIGHTS: 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix
AS IT HAPPENED
Q1 – Big crash for Kubica sees segment end under red flags
It‘s already been an eventful weekend for Williams after George Russell’s tussle with a drain cover in Free Practice 1. And they had woe lumped onto their woe in Q1 when Robert Kubica stuffed his FW42 into the wall at Turn 8 in the final moments of the segment. The Pole clipped the inside of the corner, damaging the Williams’ front left suspension before ending up in the barriers and bringing out the red flags.
That meant that a number of drivers were unable to improve their times as the track evolved, with Racing Point’s Lance Stroll failing to claw out of Q1 for the eighth consecutive race, while prominent midfielders Romain Grosjean and Nico Hulkenberg were P17 and P18 for Haas and Renault, ahead of the Williams of George Russell and Kubica.
Even though he’ll be making a pit lane start on Sunday, Pierre Gasly got a confidence boost by heading the time sheets for the first occasion this year ahead of Leclerc, while McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in fifth and the two Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi in seventh and eighth all impressed.
Q2 – Pole favourite Leclerc bins it in the wall
After a half an hour delay as repairs were carried out to the Turn 8 crash barriers and Kubica’s Williams was low-loaded back to the pits, the drivers headed back out onto the rapidly cooling Baku track.
But with just five minutes of the restarted segment gone, another car was seen embedded in the exact same spot where the Williams of Kubica had been. And as the TV cameras focused and the dust and debris settled, it became clear that a big upset had just taken place, as Charles Leclerc – the driver who had led every session so far this weekend – sat disconsolately in the cockpit of his SF90.
“I am stupid… I am stupid,” he lamented over team radio before leveraging himself out of the car, smacking its halo angrily and climbing aboard the medical car, having seen a chance to take the second pole of his career evaporate.
Before that, however, Leclerc had at least set a time good enough to progress him into Q3 – and on medium tyres as well, the only driver who managed that in Q2, which could yet make him an interesting factor in Sunday’s race – while McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in 11th and Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon in 13th were unable to join their team mates in Q3. They had Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo between them, while Kevin Magnussen overshot Turn 2 on his final lap to end up 14th, ahead of Pierre Gasly, who opted not to run owing to his penalty.
So with Leclerc gone, it was Sebastian Vettel inherited the role of favourite for pole. But with Mercedes appearing to engage their party mode in Q3, the Silver Arrows started to fly. Lewis Hamilton’s first effort saw him undercut last year’s pole position by around eighth tenths, a first sign of what was to come.
Red Bull were trying a different approach to their rivals, sending Max Verstappen out for a quick lap, a cool down lap, another quick lap and then parking him as the others headed out for their second runs.
That left the Dutchman provisionally P2, while Vettel’s status as favourite seemed to be galvanised as he found himself in clean air on his final run. After a strong first sector, however, his lap appeared to fall away, as he failed to match even Hamilton’s first effort to go take Verstappen's P2.
Behind, Mercedes looked to have put their drivers into plenty of traffic and compromised their own final runs. But out of nowhere, Hamilton found the pace to improve his time, but it was Bottas who shocked everyone to take his second pole position in a row by just 0.059s. That left Vettel 0.3s off in third – a big upset considering the way Ferrari had dominated proceedings up till that point – while Verstappen ended up in fourth.
Special mention goes to Antonio Giovinazzi, who will have gained much-needed confidence from his first Q3 appearance of the year, his grid drop denying his eighth place notwithstanding, while Perez, Kvyat and Norris all played starring roles for their squads.
The key quote
“I’m really happy. It was a nice feeling to get it on the last lap. It was a nice lap and… [Ferrari] have been really strong. Obviously Charles was out by a mistake and as a team, we did really good to be where we are now after such a difficult practice.
“It’s all about small margins and I did get a good tow in the last lap. Of course, the corners I had to drive as well, but it’s all about fine details and I managed to hit the sweet spot.” – Valtteri Bottas
It will be lights out and away we go at 1610 Baku time, which is 1210 UTC. And anyone hoping for rain to make everything even spicier on race day will be disappointed, with blue skies dotted with a few clouds and temperatures of around 18 degrees forecast for the race.
Can Ferrari get over the embarrassment of Mercedes snatching the momentum from them once again? How good is that Red Bull in race trim? And can Sergio Perez secure a record third podium in Baku starting from fifth? We're excited... and so should you be!