Success and failure in motorsport hangs on the tiniest of margins, and qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix delivered another example after Mercedes-AMG claimed a surprise front-row lockout with Valtteri Bottas beating Lewis Hamilton to pole position by just five-hundredths of a second.
The Baku City Circuit had not played to the strengths of the Silver Arrows cars and few would be brave to predict that either Bottas of his championship-leading teammate Hamilton would be in genuine contention for pole position on Saturday afternoon.
The Ferraris have proven to be the pace-setters all weekend and were well over a second clear of the field in Saturday’s third and final practice session. Having been beaten on pace or reliability over the previous three Grands Prix, the journey to Azerbaijan looked set to be the platform for a return to form for the Scuderia.
Yet the Italian team was left licking its wounds after Sebastian Vettel could manage no better than third-fastest, while teammate Charles Leclerc – a favourite to claim his second career pole position – crashed out at the tight Turn 8 midway through Q2 and triggered the second red flag interruption of qualifying.
It was the Monégasque driver’s first major error of his maiden season in Ferrari colours. He took too much speed approaching the left-hander, locked up and slid head-on into the barriers which had only just been repaired following a hard Q1 crash for Williams’ Robert Kubica that was caused by the Pole clipping the inside wall.
Leclerc was understandably disappointed at throwing away a likely pole position. “I deserve what happened,” he said afterwards. “I have been stupid. Pole was possible after looking at my pace across the weekend. For the next few hours I will be beating myself up.”
Qualifying is no guarantee of success come race day in Azerbaijan, and Ferrari could well have an ace up its sleeve given both Vettel and Leclerc will start the race on the more durable Medium compound tyres – having used that rubber to post their quickest Q2 times – while their rivals will all be shod with Supersoft rubber. All three previous Grands Prix here have been punctuated with multiple Safety Car interruptions, meaning that a flexible strategy and disciplined driving will be rewarded on Sunday.
Ferrari’s misfortune should not detract from a superb performance by Bottas (in particular) and Hamilton, who wrung every last tenth of a second from their Mercedes’. Hamilton was the quicker of the pair after their first Q3 runs, but on their second outing Bottas benefited from a slipstream down the 2.1-kilometre blast to the start/finish line and a better first sector than Hamilton to edge out the Briton by just 0.055 seconds.
It was the Finn’s eighth career pole – his second of the season and his first at Baku, a circuit where he would have won last year where it not for a tyre failure in the final laps of the race.
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen used his upgraded Honda engine and the RB15 chassis’ aerodynamics to full effect, qualifying a superb fourth-fastest. The Dutch driver was fastest in Q1, while teammate Pierre Gasly repeated the feat in Q2 s both drivers benefited from a handy slipstream on their run to the finish line.
Gasly was already going to start the race from the back of the grid anyway for missing a weighbridge check at the end of FP2, but the Frenchman was later excluded from qualifying altogether for a fuel flow violation.
Sergio Pérez, the only two-time podium finisher at this circuit, qualified an excellent and season’s best fifth-fastest in his Racing Point Mercedes. The Mexican is not known as a one-lap specialist but once again comfortably shaded teammate Lance Stroll who was eliminated in Q1 for the eighth Grand Prix on the trot. The Canadian slapped the wall exiting Turn 2 and later blamed a foggy visor for his lack of pace, an excuse that would be better swallowed coming from a youngster in karting.
The remaining Q3 order was completed by Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, McLaren rookie Lando Norris and the Alfa Romeo pair of Antonio Giovinazzi (who has a ten-place grid penalty) and Kimi Räikkönen. Leclerc made the Q3 cut but his accident in Q2 meant he took no further part in proceedings.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz was outshone by teammate Norris and qualified eleventh-fastest ahead of a determined Daniel Ricciardo, who hauled his poorly-handling Renault to twelfth-fastest. The Australian’s teammate Nico Hülkenberg also complained of a lack of grip and poor braking in his RS18 and was knocked out in Q1 alongside Stroll and Haas’ Romain Grosjean.
Toro Rosso rookie Alexander Albon was a solid 13th-fastest at a circuit where he’d claimed his maiden Formula 2 race victory a year before; the Anglo-Thai driver starts ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
The Williams team’s torrid weekend went from bad to worse. George Russell qualified 19th-fastest in the spare FW42 chassis after his original car was destroyed in FP1 when he ran over a loose manhole cover. Teammate Robert Kubica then crashed out in the final minutes of Q1 at Turn 8, placing more pressure on the Grove squad’s limited supply of spare parts.
|FORMULA 1 SOCAR AZERBAIJAN GRAND PRIX 2019 – QUALIFYING|
|Q3 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap|
|1.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||1:40.495|
|2.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||1:40.554||+ 0.059|
|3.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||1:40.797||+ 0.302|
|4.||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing RB15||1:41.069||+ 0.574|
|5.||Sergio Pérez||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||1:41.593||+ 1.098|
|6.||Daniil Kvyat||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||1:41.681||+ 1.186|
|7.||Lando Norris||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||1:41.886||+ 1.391|
|8.||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||1:42.424||+ 1.929|
|9.||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||1:43.068||+ 2.573|
|10.||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||no time|
|Q2 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap*|
|11.||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||1:42.398||+ 1.010|
|12.||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault F1 Team RS19||1:42.477||+ 1.089|
|13.||Alexander Albon||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||1:42.494||+ 1.106|
|14.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team VF-19||1:42.699||+ 1.311|
|EXC.||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull Racing RB15||excluded|
|Q1 Qualifiers||Team / Entry||Time||Gap**|
|15.||Lance Stroll||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||1:42.630||+ 1.295|
|16.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team VF-19||1:43.407||+ 2.072|
|17.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault F1 Team RS19||1:43.427||+ 2.092|
|18.||George Russell||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||1:45.062||+ 3.727|
|19.||Robert Kubica||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||1:45.455||+ 4.120|
* Denotes gap to fastest Q2 lap time of 1:42.388 posted by Max Verstappen
** Denotes gap to fastest Q1 lap time of 1:41.335 posted by Pierre Gasly
- Antonio Giovinazzi – who provisionally qualified 8th-fastest – will serve a 10-place grid penalty for the use of additional power unit elements.
- Pierre Gasly was excluded from qualifying for his car exceeding the permitted fuel flow rate.
Images via Mercedes-AMG F1 Team