Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc grabbed a surprise pole position for the Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix on Saturday in a qualifying session littered with crashes and four red flag stoppages.
The pole was Leclerc’s second in a row and once again came as a result of the final session being stopped early by a red car banging into the barriers.
At home in Monaco two weeks ago it was Leclerc who set the fastest lap and then crashed, with rivals unable to beat his time, and in Baku it was a smash involving team mate Carlos Sainz that ended the track action.
Mercedes’ seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton qualified alongside the Monegasque on the front row, with Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen starting a frustrated third.
“It was just a stupid qualifying to be honest,” said the Dutch driver.
Leclerc owed some of his time of one minute 41.218 seconds to Hamilton, who was in front of him for his first flying lap and without wanting to provided a hefty aerodynamic ‘tow’ down the long straight.
“I think we would have been there or thereabouts for pole without the slipstream, so it’s a good day. I did not expect to be as competitive as we were today,” said Leclerc.
Hamilton has a record 100 pole positions to his credit but his front row placing was perhaps an even bigger surprise than Leclerc’s result, with Mercedes struggling for pace all through practice and Red Bull on top.
“This is such a monumental result for us because we’ve been struggling like you couldn’t believe all weekend,” said the Briton, who was only 11th in opening practice.
“We’ve moved around, made so many changes, over these two days. Just chasing our tail and it’s been so difficult.”
The first phase of qualifying was twice stopped by crashes, with Canadian Lance Stroll smashing his Aston Martin into the barriers at turn 15 and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi following minutes later.
“I was kind of committed to the corner and at that point it just pushed me a bit deep and I hit the wall,” said Stroll, son of team owner Lawrence Stroll.
Hamilton had been fastest in that opening session, after struggling in practice, ahead of the two Red Bulls.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo then crashed his McLaren after locking up at turn three in the second phase, bringing out the red flags for the third time and ending the session abruptly.
The crash left Aston Martin’s four times world champion Sebastian Vettel cursing his misfortune in 11th place after being denied the chance to go faster.
The final crash involved Sainz and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda.