BAKU (AFP) – Charles Leclerc lived up to his status as the master of poles this season when pulling a flying lap out of the bag in qualifying on Saturday (June 11) for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Ferrari driver, registering his fourth consecutive pole and sixth of the season, is joined on the front row for Sunday’s race by the Red Bull of in-form Sergio Perez.
Perez, who won on the streets of the Azerbaijani capital 12 months ago and in Monaco last time out, once again outperformed his world champion teammate Max Verstappen.
Verstappen starts on the second row with Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari.
“It feels good,” said a visibly thrilled Leclerc.
“All poles feel good, but this one I didn’t expect. I thought the Red Bulls were stronger in the first and second qualifying sessions but on the last lap everything came together.”
Leclerc had a healthy championship lead after the fifth race in Australia but goes into this eighth round of the season nine points behind Verstappen, with Perez only six points back in third.
He will be anxious to convert pole into victory, something that has escaped him in the last three races starting form the head of the grid.
“I’m really excited for tomorrow,” said the man from Monaco who nailed his flying lap in the top 10 shoot out, expertly eking the maximum out of his car around this complex circuit with its sinuous old city section and airport runway-long straight.
Perez, in the prime of his racing life with his confidence flowing, popped up with a sub 1min 42 lap to lead the charge into the final throw of the qualifying dice.
Sainz briefly flirted with his first ever pole but with the qualifying timer almost over Leclerc crossed the line in 1min 41.359sec to top the timesheets.
Perez threw everything at his last lap.
“Yeah, Q3 is when you go balls out and I hit the wall a couple of times. At the end we had a problem with the engine, we couldn’t turn it on and I was out on my own with no ‘tow’... would it have been enough for pole, who knows?”
As for Verstappen he reported: “The start of the lap was good but then it went away from me, tiny mistakes. Still as a team, second and third, we have a good opportunity tomorrow.”
Perez has given Red Bull team chief Christian Horner an interesting dilemma in terms of which of his drivers to back should there be a repeat of Barcelona when the Mexican was given team orders to let Verstappen through for the win.
Mercedes struggled in practice with their under-performing 2022 car bouncing on the bumpy track so George Russell starting on the third row after placing fifth in qualifying was a decent result.
The AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly joins him ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the other Mercedes sharing the fourth row with Yuki Tsunoda while Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso completed the top 10.