He struggled on Friday, but Sebastian Vettel found that little bit of magic once more on Saturday afternoon in Azerbaijan as he captured his third pole position in a row. However, Kimi Raikkonen blew Ferraris hopes of a front-row lockout after making a crucial mistake in the last sector of his final run. Up until that point the Finn had looked set to steal pole position away from his team mate, but instead he’ll line up in P6 as Lewis Hamilton held onto second place for Mercedes.
The Briton, lying second to Vettel in the world championship, finished 0.179s behind the German and a couple of tenths ahead of Silver Arrows team mate Valtteri Bottas.
The Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were next up in fourth and fifth, the former pipping his team mate after gratefully picking up a tow from a recovering Raikkonen.
Completing the top 10 in what was a thrilling session were the Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, making their first Q3 appearances of the year, and the Renaults of Nico Hulkenberg (who entered qualifying with a five-place grid drop hanging over him) and Carlos Sainz.
Q1 had begun with drama almost from the off. The session was barely four minutes old when Romain Grosjean become the first casualty. A huge lock-up at Turn 3 forced him to take the escape road, causing a big flat spot on his front-left tyre – and ultimately a gearbox issue ended his day before it had even properly begun.
As has been the pattern this season, Raikkonen started the qualifying process in impressive fashion and was the better of the two Ferraris at the beginning of Q1.
With all 10 constructors running on the quickest ultrasoft tyres early on, Force India continued to show signs of improvement with Ocon temporarily going P2 ahead of Mercedes and Red Bull.
Ocon’s team mate, Perez, perhaps tried too hard to match the Frenchman’s exploits. Turn 15 proved to be a big ask once again, with the Mexican overcooking the corner and ruining a set of tyres.
The opening session was beginning to hot up, with Raikkonen still leading the way, when the Toro Rosso pair of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley almost collided in what was a very lucky escape.
A slow-moving Hartley was limping out of Turn 14 after suffering a puncture when an onrushing Gasly rounded the corner and came within inches of colliding full speed into the back of the Kiwi.
Both Toro Rossos ultimately exited Q1, and were followed by McLaren’s Stoffel Vanddorne, Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson – the only driver to fail to reach Q2 this season – and Grosjean. On a positive note, rookies Charles Leclerc and Sergey Sirotkin moved into Q2 for the first time this year.
The second segment saw the top three teams – Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull – send all their drivers out on supersoft rubber with an eye on tomorrow’s race, while the rest of the field emerged on ultrasofts.
And, similar to the opening session, it didn’t take long for the tricky corners to bring out the best and worst of the drivers.
Raikkonen suffered most after making a costly mistake and flat-spotting his tyres, forcing him to retreat to the pits for ultrasofts – a switch that will surely compromise him in the race when all around him will start on more durable rubber.
The Finn did at least put the rubber to good use, ending the session just over one-tenths quicker than Hamilton as the Williamses of Lance Stroll and Sirotkin, along with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, Sauber’s Leclerc and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen (whose car lost bodywork at one stage) were the unfortunate ones to fail to reach Q3.
So, who would come up with the goods in the all-important final session? Ferrari laid down the gauntlet when Vettel produced a superb lap to move to the top, an impressive 0.342s ahead of Hamilton.
And that lap would ultimately prove enough for the German to secure his first hat-trick of pole positions since 2013 on a day when Ferrari on speed alone should have scored the 60th front row lockout in their F1 history.
With the first four on the grid lining up in championship order and major gusts predicted to hit Baku on Sunday, the stage is set for what promises to be a thrilling Grand Prix.
Azerbaijan GP Qualifying Grid
|1) Sebastian Vettel||Ferrari||1:41.498|
|2) Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes||+ 0.179|
|3) Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes||+ 0.339|
|4) Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||+ 0.413|
|5) Max Verstappen||Red Bull||+ 0.496|
|6) Kimi Raikkonen||Ferrari||+ 0.992|
|7) Esteban Ocon||Force India||+ 1.025|
|8) Sergio Perez||Force India||+ 1.049|
|9) Nico Hulkenberg||Renault||+ 1.568|
|10) Carlos Sainz||Renault||+ 1.853|
|Out in Q2|
|11) Lance Stroll||Williams||1:43.585|
|12) Sergey Sirotkin||Williams||1:43.886|
|13) Fernando Alonso||McLaren||1:44.019|
|14) Charles Leclerc||Sauber||1:44.074|
|15) Kevin Magnussen||Haas||1:44.759|
|Out in Q1|
|16) Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren||1:44.489|
|17 ) Pierre Gasly||Toro Rosso||1:44.496|
|18) Marcus Ericsson||Sauber||1:45.541|
|19) Brendon Hartley||Toro Rosso||1:57.354|
|20) Romain Grosjean||Haas||No time set|