BAKU • Ferrari's championship leader Sebastian Vettel smiled with relief after he claimed pole for today's Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of a revived Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes in a crash-strewn qualifying session.
The German, who leads the defending four-time world champion by nine points after three races this season, clocked a best lap of 1min and 41.498sec to sweep to the prime starting spot.
It was an emphatic demonstration of his and Ferrari's pace after a tough practice session on Friday. It was his third consecutive pole position and the 53rd of his career.
"In the end, I knew I had the car I wanted and it did what I wanted... The first lap was good and it was good enough in the end so I am happy," said Vettel, himself a four-time world champion.
Hamilton was 0.179 seconds adrift after an improved showing that left him ahead of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and his Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen.
"That was close," said Hamilton. "We did the best job we could and I think I lost a little bit in the final sector, but Sebastian did a great job. We are in the mix and I am hoping to give him a hard time in the race."
Bottas added: "We can fight them here and we are starting very close. This race can be crazy, but we have a good starting point."
AZERBAIJAN GP GRID
1ST ROW 1
Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Ferrari
2 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes
3 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes
4 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull
5 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull
6 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari
7 Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India
8 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India
9 Carlos Sainz (Esp) Renault
10 Lance Stroll (Can) Williams
Kimi Raikkonen wound up sixth in the second Ferrari after an eventful session and a huge slide on his final flying lap.
In cool and overcast conditions, the opening Q1 session began briskly, but was soon interrupted when Romain Grosjean's Haas car came to a halt in an escape road at Turn 3, his gearbox jammed. He was unable to rejoin while the action was controlled by yellow flags.
More drama followed in the final minutes of Q1 when Pierre Gasly almost clipped his Toro Rosso team-mate Brendon Hartley. Taking evasive action, Gasly bounced over the kerbs at Turn 15 and into an escape road. The Frenchman was furious, screaming at the New Zealander over the team radio.
Even when told Hartley had a puncture, he said: "Unacceptable".
"Sorry guys," said Hartley. "I was trying to get out of the way, but it was too late. I went the wrong way. I feel pretty stupid."
This incident resulted in them both being eliminated in 17th and 19th positions.
In Q2 more drama saw Raikkonen going straight on, at Turn 15, and Lance Stroll also left the track.
Bottas led the way ahead of Verstappen and Vettel before Raikkonen went off again and a persistent Hamilton topped the charts ahead of his team-mate by 0.003 seconds until Raikkonen, on a set of ultra-softs, roared to the head of the lap times in the final seconds.
On their first flying runs, Vettel outpaced Hamilton by three-tenths ahead of Bottas and the Red Bulls with Raikkonen sixth, following a scary off-road excursion at Turn 16.
"It will be an intense race. Anything can happen here and safety cars are likely," said Vettel.
F1 AZERBAIJAN GP
Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, 7pm