Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes did not need reminding that the defense of their World Championship titles will be a major achievement.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix served to rub salt into open wounds as championship leader Sebastian Vettel claimed his third pole position in a row with a remarkable final lap around the Baku City Circuit.

The German’s lap to pole – the 53rd of his career – matched the eye-opening efforts he had put down to claim the prime starting position at the previous Bahrain and Chinese Grands Prix. This time, however, Ferrari was denied a 1-2 result after the session’s early pace-setter Kimi Räikkönen suffered a scruffy final segment in the battle for pole position. The Finn qualified sixth-fastest, throwing away a shot at pole position with a wild tank-slapper on his final flying lap.

Despite its perceived horsepower advantage, the Mercedes’ were once again unable to match the sheer one-lap speed of the Ferraris. That all Mercedes-powered runners qualified inside the first six rows of the grid proves the sheer grunt of the power units, but it also highlighted the F1W09 chassis’ shortcomings and its inability to hang on to the sweet spot it needs to get this year’s Pirelli tyres to work.

With rear wings trimmed to maximise their top speed down the circuit’s 2.1-kilometre flat-out blast to the start/finish line, Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas paid for their set-ups by being fractionally slower than Vettel in the twistier middle sector.

Hamilton finished less than two-tenths of a second shy, with Bottas a similar margin further adrift in third place, narrowly ahead of the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

The Force Indias and Renaults completed the top ten, with Esteban Ocon leading the midfield charge and finishing just 0.024 seconds up on teammate Sergio Pérez. The pink cars have claimed just a single point to-date in 2018 – by the same point last year it had already scored 17 – and the Silverstone team will be hoping that its drivers can stay out of trouble, and each other’s way, to kickstart its points tally in earnest.

The Renaults of Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. completed the top ten, however the former will take a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.

Another team enjoying a far more competitive showing was Williams, which has struggled at the back of the pack so far in 2018. Lance Stroll, a podium winner here last year in his rookie season, qualified eleventh-fastest ahead of teammate Sergey Sirotkin, whose car was hastily repaired after a heavy crash in FP3. The Grove outfit is the only team not to score points to-date this year, and Sunday’s race presents one of the few opportunities where the ill-handling FW41 might trouble the scorers.

The McLaren MCL33’s lack of straight-line speed – more down to the chassis than its Renault power units – meant Fernando Alonso could manage no better than thirteenth-fastest. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne – who has been off the Spaniard’s pace all weekend and is coming under increasing pressure to match the Spaniard’s pace – was knocked out in Q1.

Charles Leclerc, who has enjoyed success in Formula 2 at Baku, qualified a career-best 14th-fastest in the Alfa Romeo Sauber. Kevin Magnussen was the slowest Q2 runner, with his Haas Ferrari – as was the case in Bahrain – shedding bits of bodywork down the start/finish straight.

The Toro Rosso drivers were once again getting in each other’s way, with Pierre Gasly avoiding a potentially sickening collision with teammate Brendon Hartley as he came up on his much slower teammate at over 300km/h on the approach to Turn 15.

Pierre Gasly & Brendon Hartley, Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda - 2018 Bahrain Grand Prix

Pierre Gasly narrowly avoided teammate Brendon Hartley and a potentially huge accident during Q1.

Unbeknownst to Gasly, Hartley was trying to limp back to the pits with a puncture. There were no white flags being waved by the marshals to indicate a loswer car was on the circuit, and only lightning quick reflexes by Gasly prevented a monumental accident. Hartley’s Q1 time was outside the 107% cut-off but he will be allowed to start the race from the last row of the grid.

Another driver requiring the discretion of the FIA Stewards to get on the grid is Romain Grosjean, who was forced to park his Haas up the escape road with a suspected gearbox problem before he had posted a lap time.

Sunday’s 51-lap Azerbaijan Formula 1 Grand Prix starts at 16:10 local time (GMT +4).

Q3 Qualifiers Team / Entry Time Gap
1. Sebastian Vettel de Scuderia Ferrari SF71H 1:41.498
2. Lewis Hamilton uk Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09 1:41.677 + 0.179
3. Valtteri Bottas fi Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09 1:41.837 + 0.339
4. Daniel Ricciardo au Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Tag Heuer RB14 1:41.911 + 0.413
5. Max Verstappen nl Aston Martin Red Bull Racing Tag Heuer RB14 1:41.994 + 0.496
6. Kimi Räikkönen fi Scuderia Ferrari SF71H 1:42.490 + 0.992
7. Esteban Ocon fr Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11 1:42.523 + 1.025
8. Sergio Pérez Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11 1:42.547 + 1.049
9. Nico Hülkenberg de Renault Sport F1 Team RS18 1:43.066 + 1.568
10. Carlos Sainz Jr es Renault Sport F1 Team RS18 1:43.351 + 1.853
Q2 Qualifiers Team / Entry Time Gap**
11. Lance Stroll Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41 1:43.585 + 1.075
12. Sergey Sirotkin ru Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41 1:43.886 + 1.376
13. Fernando Alonso es McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33 1:44.019 + 1.509
14. Charles Leclerc mc Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37 1:44.074 + 1.564
15. Kevin Magnussen dk Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18 1:44.759 + 2.249
Q1 Qualifiers Team / Entry Time Gap*
16. Stoffel Vandoorne ca McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33 1:44.489 + 1.951
17. Pierre Gasly fr Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13 1:44.496 + 1.958
18. Marcus Ericsson se Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37 1:45.541 + 3.003
Outside 107% Team / Entry Time Gap*
DNQ. Brendon Hartley Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13 1:57.354 + 14.816
DNQ. Romain Grosjean fr Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18 no time

* Denotes gap to fastest Q1 time of 1:42.538 posted by Kimi Räikkönen
** Denotes gap to fastest Q2 time of 1:42.510 posted by Kimi Räikkönen

Post-Qualifying Penalties:

  • Nico Hülkenberg – who provisionally qualified 9th fastest – will serve a five-place grid penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change.
  • Brendon Hartley and Romain Grosjean failed to post a lap time within 107% of the fastest Q1 lap time and will race at the discretion of the FIA Stewards.

Images via Scuderia Ferrari and Sutton Images

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Geoff Burke

Journalist at MotorsportM8
Site co-founder. Social Media guru. All-round trouble-maker.