Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc ends Red Bull run with surprise pole for Azerbaijan GP

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc ends Red Bull run with surprise pole for Azerbaijan GP

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc put a brake on Red Bull’s dominant streak by securing a surprise pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Formula One bosses have tinkered with the format in Baku by introducing two qualifying sessions.

Friday’s result decides the order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, while a second shorter qualifying session on Saturday determines the grid for a 17-lap dash – the first of six sprint events this season – later in the day.

The sport’s chiefs hope the revamp will enliven the weekend, and Leclerc’s qualifying triumph for Sunday’s main event marks the first non-Red Bull pole of the season.

Max Verstappen, who has won two of the opening three rounds to establish a 15-point championship lead, will line up alongside Leclerc, with Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez – the only other man to stand on the top step of the podium in 2023 – third.

Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth, a second back from Leclerc. Mercedes team-mate George Russell was eliminated in Q2 and will start 11th on Sunday.

By his own admission, Leclerc’s start to the season has been a “disaster”. He broke down in Bahrain, and then finished only seventh in Saudi Arabia following an engine penalty. Last time out in Australia he failed to complete a single lap after a collision with Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.

He then arrived on the Caspian Sea amid a report in Italy that he is already plotting his Ferrari exit with a move to Mercedes as Hamilton’s replacement.

But after claiming his third pole in a row on Baku’s streets, the 25-year-old deliberately pointed to the Prancing Horse on his Ferrari overalls.

“The whole team needed this result,” he said. “It is part of our job, for any team in Formula One, to deal with rumours and pressure.

“But it is obviously sometimes a bit more difficult to perform under those circumstances.

Azerbaijan F1 GP Auto Racing
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton will start from fifth on Sunday (Darko Bandic/AP)

“I did not expect it. We came into the weekend thinking it would be a great result if we are in front of the Aston Martins and the Mercedes, and we find ourself on pole.

“We know we are behind on race pace but our job is to maximise the points for later in the season if we are then strong enough to go and get the wins.”

Over at Mercedes, Hamilton might have finished second in Melbourne, but the seven-time world champion was off the pace here.

Hamilton snuck through to Q3, finishing just 0.004 sec ahead of the knocked-out Russell, and then never threatened to challenge the Ferraris and Red Bulls.

“We are trying as hard as we can,” said the 38-year-old. “It’s just getting into a rhythm is not easy on this track.

“We can’t make changes to the car overnight. This is the pace we have. It’s not the position we want as a team. We exist to win. But everyone has that winning mindset.

“We haven’t had an upgrade this weekend but we’re working towards one which will hopefully put us a bit closer to the battle.”

Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz will start fourth, two spots ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, with Lando Norris seventh for McLaren.

Q1 was delayed by 28 minutes after Nyck de Vries and Pierre Gasly both crashed out.

De Vries went in too hot on his brakes at the third corner, missing the apex and slamming into the wall. Out came the red flag, and a 17-minute barrier repair job followed as De Vries’ written-off AlphaTauri was winched away.

The running had restarted for less than two minutes before the red flags were deployed for a second time. Turn 3 claimed another victim as Gasly thudded into the wall and came to a halt.

“I couldn’t stop the car,” said the Frenchman, who missed the majority of practice when his Alpine caught fire. The two men will start Sunday’s 51-lap Grand Prix from the back of the pack.