For a man who normally prefers kidney stones over second place, Lewis Hamilton was extremely pleased to qualify one position behind pole man Charles Leclerc for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
This was because he went to bed on Friday and couldn’t fathom why his Mercedes was out of order. After finishing 11th in the second practice, his team’s in-depth analysis of the situation continued until 11 p.m.
Saturday’s third practice turned out to be slightly better, with only a drag giving Hamilton a veneer of respect on the timing screens as he struggled again to get his tires to work.
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc took pole position after qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix
After a hectic qualifying, Leclerc defeated Hamilton by two tenths of a second in Baku
The Mercedes of defending champion Lewis Hamilton will be second on the grid tomorrow
The Monegask (left) comes after a nice ride in the front row next to Hamilton (right)
Then, as if by magic, though truly a product of high effort and tremendous expertise from driver and boffins, that all changed as the most entertaining qualifying session of this young season – with five crashes and four red flags – unfolded.
Hamilton finished just two tenths behind Leclerc, the Ferrari man who took pole for a fortnight in Monaco only to undo his hard work by breaking the barriers and missing the race as a result.
Max Verstappen, who leads the standings by four points, qualified one place back from his championship rival, Hamilton. Another reason for the Briton to consider second position balm.
“Wow,” Hamilton said over the radio. “What an effort.”
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen was extremely frustrated despite finishing the top three
The Dutchman had crashed in the last practice, but Red Bull had the pace to get Mercedes in trouble
Aston Martin’s Canadian driver Lance Stroll received the first red flag of the day after a crash
Antonio Giovinazzi of Alfa Romeo also crashed on the street circuit in the Azerbaijani capital
From the cockpit, the reigning champion added: “Frankly, it’s one of the biggest feelings given the difficult experience we’ve been through. After being out of the top 10 all weekend and really struggling to get performance out of our car. It’s hard to describe the emotions I’ve been through these past few days. It was a bit of a disaster.
“I’m really happy to be here and grateful to have completed the lap. It puts us in front of a very different race than we expected yesterday.
“The work at night and especially between sessions was great from the team. They worked until 10 minutes before qualifying and changed things.’
In reality, Hamilton may have been helped by Yuki Tsunoda who smashed his AlphaTauri to end qualifying prematurely. That meant that Verstappen was denied his last shot at the post which he had started the afternoon as the favourite.
Lando Norris finished sixth but faces a trip to the stewards after questionable ‘red flag proceedings’
The Dutchman was furious about his bad luck. “It was just a stupid qualifying,” he said. “Everything worked fine, but this shit happens all the time in Q3.” After catching his breath, he added: “It’s a street circuit, so these things can happen.”
They certainly can. Verstappen did indeed crash during third practice, Turn 15, a left-hander who acted as a car magnet all day. In qualifying it was Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll (red flag!) and Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi (red flag!).
Daniel Ricciardo clattered his McLaren at another left-handed Turn 3 (red flag!). And when Tsunoda had bad luck there too, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, perhaps distracted by the accident ahead of him, made a pirouette. That led to the final red flag.
Fourth on the grid is Pierre Gasly ahead of AlphaTauri and Sainz fifth. McLaren’s Lando Norris qualified sixth but was given a three-place penalty for failing to enter the pits when one of the ubiquitous red flags was introduced.
Mercedes chief Toto Wolff continued his war of words with Red Bull boss Christian Horner
Horner told the Austrian to ‘shut up’ as the feud over flexible wings intensified
Valtteri Bottas, in the other Mercedes, was ninth fastest, but might have gone better without Tsunoda’s antics.
Off the track, the feud between Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and his Mercedes counterpart, Toto Wolff, flared up again.
Mercedes thinks Red Bull is gaining an illegal advantage with their ‘flexible’ rear wing. Horner replied that both the front and rear wing of the Mercedes are bending and told Wolff to “shut up”.
Wolff fired back on Saturday and said of Horner, “He’s a windsock who wants to be on camera.”
See below for Sports post‘s Max Mathews for comprehensive coverage of a record-equivalent qualifying session for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.