F1 – Azerbaijan GP – Qualifying
Salam, MiniFans! We’re back in Azerbaijan for a second consecutive race in street circuits, but, this time, the track is more forgiving, as it’s wider and has more runoff areas. Crashes and red flags are still prominent, due to slippery pavement, big decelerations and blocked tyres in braking zones, but drivers can get closer to the limit.
We can’t really call a circuit a street one without at least one incident in FP3 that interferes in one way or another with qualifying. This time round it was Red Bull and Williams’ turn, as Verstappen hit a barrier and his car needed repairs while Russell’s engine gave up on him. The former had no problem with going out in Q1, but the latter didn’t look like he could make it. However, a red flag caused by Stroll destroying his front right suspension gave them a bit of extra time that proved to have been key for the team. By this time, only Leclerc had managed to put out a lap, the rest having been caught either getting ready or in their lap.
Once the clock started ticking down again, Mercedes left their quest to try and make the cut with mediums, joining the rest of the pack in using softs. Only ten cars with a lap in their bag later, another red flag was waved, this time due to Giovinazzi crashing. An investigation was issued to Norris for red flag procedures, as he didn’t go immediately into the pit lane, and cars were allowed back out. Times of those with a previous lap didn’t improve and the ones without one shuffled themselves in between. At the end of the session, a Mercedes was back on top, but Hamilton had tows to thank for his throne. Russell, after getting his engine changed in the last possible minute, squeezed his way through to Q2. The drivers eliminated in Q1 were Latifi (P16), Schumacher (P17), Mazepin (P18), Stroll (P19) and Giovinazzi (P20).
Cars queued up in the pit lane waiting for the green lights, as getting a fast lap as soon as possible was key due to the insane amount of flags that tend to come out in street circuits. The top spots got soon shared among Ferrari and Red Bull and risk takers started to make an appearance. Hamilton finally woke up and settled in second, only four thousandths of a second behind Pérez. With seven minutes to go, four cars had made laps within three hundredths of a second, which is already disturbingly close in a normal track, but even more so in one that’s 6 kilometres long and doesn’t have a short lap time. While Hamilton had managed to finally figure out the car, even if it was just for one lap, Bottas was sinking. He was saved by yet another red flag caused by a crash, this time courtesy of Ricciardo, effectively bringing the session to an end, as there wasn’t enough time left in order to do a timed lap. The drivers eliminated in Q2 were Vettel (P11), Ocon (P12), Ricciardo (P13), Raikkonen (P14) and Russell (P15).
Two runs was the strategy chosen by everyone, except for Alpha Tauri, who remained in their boxes for the first half of Q3. All the precautions taken up until now were thrown out of the window, getting closer than ever to the barriers. An accidental tow by Hamilton launched Leclerc into first with a couple of tenths to spare, a time unreachable by the British driver when getting his own tow from his Mercedes teammate. Alpha Tauri, choosing to do just one flying lap, copied Mercedes’ strategy and Gasly benefitted slightly from Tsunoda breaking the air in front of him. The rest of the teams’ last attempt was plagued by a train of slow cars in their attempt not to be the singled-out car in front. However, their last laps were cut short due to Tsunoda crashing into the wall and prompting yet another red flag, which meant the end of the qualifying session, leaving Leclerc on top. His teammate, however, had crashed as well, as he had seen Tsunoda crashing and slammed on the brakes in a split-second decision, taken not to crash into the Alpha Tauri parked in the barrier.
Mercedes was nowhere to be found before the car settings sank in for Hamilton halfway through qualifying and they showed their tow game in Q3, but Ferrari outsmarted them and Leclerc got a tow out of the British driver that robbed them of a pole position. It remains to see whether the silver arrow will be able to figure it out for long runs instead of individual laps, in order to reign over the favourites for the podium, Ferrari and Red Bull.