Charles Leclerc claimed his fourth pole position in a row by dominating qualifying at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Ferrari held a provisional front-row lockout, but with Carlos Sainz leading a slightly scrappy Leclerc, the drivers battling with grip on a cooling track fast approaching sunset.
Sainz was first out among the front-runners for the second runs, but it was the Spaniard’s turn to struggle, and after some snaps of oversteer in the first few corners, his pole challenge was as good as over at the end of the first split.
That left the door open to Leclerc, who didn’t need to be asked a second time. The Monegasque went purple in the first two sectors and was only marginally down in the final split to rocket to the top of the time sheet with a time of 1m41.359s.
It turned into a comfortable 0.282s margin over the field to deliver Leclerc his sixth pole of the season and make him the first driver in history to claim more than one pole in Azerbaijan.
“It feels good,” he said. “Obviously all pole positions feel good, but this one I probably did not expect. In the last lap everything came together and I managed to do a good lap, so I’m extremely happy.
“Overall our race pace has done step up since we brought the upgrade , so tomorrow will be very interesting whether it’ll be the case here too.”
Max Verstappen was next over the line to take second at 0.347s off the pace, but Sergio Perez was out of position at the back of the pack, having suffered a fuel problem in his garage that prevented him from leaving pit lane with his teammate. It meant Perez didn’t have a slipstream, but he was undeterred, and he shaved around 0.07s off Verstappen’s best effort to snatch a front-row slot.
“It was not the ideal qualifying because in the end I had a problem with my engine,” he said. “It meant I was basically on my own, and the tow’s very powerful around here.”
Verstappen was left a disappointed third, though the Dutchman was confident the RB18’s race pace will keep him in the frame for Sunday.
“I think overall we seem to lack maybe a tiny bit over one lap, but clearly normally in the long runs our car should be quite good,” he said.
Sainz ended up an unimproved and dejected fourth to share the second row with the title leader. George Russell was fifth, but the midfield-leading Mercedes driver was 1.3s off the pace and almost a full second behind Sainz.
Pierre Gasly was an excellent sixth to split the Mercedes teammates, with Lewis Hamilton seventh and 1.5s off the pace — although the Briton, who complained of “dangerous” bottoming of his car, is under post-session investigation for driving unnecessarily slowly in Q1.
Yuki Tsunoda was eighth for AlphaTauri ahead of Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel and Alpine’s Fernando Alonso.
McLaren teammates Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo were knocked out 11th and 12th, the pair split by around 0.15s.
Esteban Ocon will start 13th for Alpine ahead of Alfa Romeo duo Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas, the Chinese rookie outqualifying his teammate for the first time ever.
The bottom five was defined by a late red flag that generated a final 150s blast to get out of Q1. The suspension was caused by Lance Sroll, who crashed twice in the space of a minute. His first was a harmless nosing of the barrier at Turn 7, but he subsequently understeered into the wall at Turn 2, shattering his front wing and wiping off his right-front corner.
A queue of cars formed early at the exit of pit lane to get a final lap in, including Fernando Alonso, whose hot lap ended in the escape zone at Turn 15 with what appeared to be a clumsy case of a locked rear axle, triggering yellow flags. Alex Albon, who was immediately behind him, wasn’t buying it.
“He needs to get penalized,” he said over team radio. “He was driving slowly on purpose. It was so obvious how he went off the track. It was ridiculous. He braked so early and then he just went off the circuit.”
The stewards didn’t immediately open an investigation, but the damage was done for all those behind him. Kevin Magnussen was knocked out 16th ahead of the aggrieved Albon and his Williams teammate, Nicholas Latifi.
The crashed-out Stroll qualified 19th ahead of Mick Schumacher, who couldn’t get his final representative lap in behind Alonso.