Ferrari‘s championship leader Sebastian Vettel smiled with relief Saturday after he had claimed pole for Sunday’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 champion by nine points after three races this season, clocked a best lap in one minute and 41.498 seconds to sweep to the prime starting spot.
It was an emphatic demonstration of his and Ferrari’s pace after he had struggled in practice 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.
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 said: “We can fight them here and we are starting very close. This race can be crazy, but we have a good starting point.”
Kimi Raikkonen wound up sixth in the second Ferrari after an eventful session and a huge slide on his final flying lap.
Esteban Ocon was seventh ahead of his Force India team-mate Sergio Perez, Nico Hulkenberg who faces a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, and his Renault team-mate Carlos Sainz.
In cool and overcast conditions, with a strong breeze, 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 Three, his gearbox jammed.
He was unable to rejoin while the action was controlled by yellow flags. As a result, Ocon was briefly fastest ahead of Hulkenberg and Sergey Sirotkin, back in action after his crash in morning practice.
For Hulkenberg, it was encouraging despite knowing he faced a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
More drama followed in the final minutes of Q1 when Pierre Gasly almost clipped his Red Bull team-mate Brendon Hartley. Taking avoiding 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. 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 along with the luckless Grosjean. Also out went Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren and Marcus Ericsson of Sauber.
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, racing with fury on a set of ultra-softs, roared to the head of the lap-times in the final seconds.
All this left Stroll in 11th place ahead of Williams team-mate Sirotkin, Fernando Alonso of McLaren, Charles Leclerc of Sauber and Kevin Magnussen of Haas.
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. “I was on the kerb and couldn’t steer,” said the Finn.
Lewis Hamilton is ready to defy the odds by defending his Formula One world championship despite nearing 200 days without a victory.
The 33-year-old British driver is winless from the opening three rounds, and without a victory in his last six appearances dating back to October’s US Grand Prix.
Hamilton has been off the pace in recent races and heads into Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix nine points adrift of championship leader Sebastian Vettel.
Hamilton was only fifth here in practice on Friday and again behind his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who has out-qualified him at the last two rounds.
It has been almost three decades since Frenchman Alain Prost failed to win any of the first four races before beating Ayrton Senna to the 1989 championship. Prost was the last driver to achieve such a feat.
Hamilton’s task has been made all the harder this year by Ferrari’s continued threat, while Red Bull have also emerged as serious contenders with Daniel Ricciardo winning so impressively in China a fortnight ago and fastest in practice on Friday.
“I don’t think about statistics and I am always one for wanting to defy the odds,” Hamilton said. “If we don’t win this weekend I plan on changing that statistic.
“Do I feel the need for the win? I am enjoying the battle and the whole experience, and that is what motorsport is all about. Finishing first is obviously a great feeling, but it always feels better when you have come from further back.
“When it feels like you have had a harder slog to get that victory, the win always feels better so when it does arrive, it is going to be great.”
For the first time in the hybrid era, Hamilton’s Mercedes team are no longer the sport’s dominant force. Indeed their failure to win last time out in China marked the first time since 2013 that one of their cars has failed to take the chequered flag in three consecutive outings.
The Baku Street Circuit has not been kind to Hamilton since its debut on the calendar in 2016 either. He finished only fifth in that first race before a loose headrest cost him victory a year ago.
A confident and in-form Daniel Ricciardo forecast he will be a strong contender for another victory in this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix after topping the practice times on Friday.
The big-smiling Australian, who won last year’s race and also the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks ago, was narrowly quickest ahead of Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari.
He said he felt he had a strong car for Sunday’s race, but feared that his main rivals may be faster in Saturday’s qualifying session.
“But even if we don’t qualify on the front row, we’ll still have a very strong race car,” he said. “We’re still in the group of favourites.”
Ricciardo clocked a best lap time of one minute and 42.795 seconds to outpace Raikkonen by just 0.069 seconds with Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen third, 0.116 seconds adrift.
Verstappen’s lap was a welcome outcome on another turbulent day which had seen him crash into the barriers during the opening practice in the morning – after crashes and incidents at all of the three season-opening races.
Valtteri Bottas, who was fastest in the morning session wound up fourth for Mercedes ahead of team-mate and defending four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and two-time champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren.
Esteban Ocon of Force India was seventh, ahead of Carlos Sainz of Renault, Kevin Magnussen of Haas and Nico Hulkenberg in the second Renault.
World championship leader and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel was only 11th for Ferrari, but said he was not too concerned by his problems.
“It is a tricky circuit, but it is the same for all of us,” said Vettel.
“Probably, I struggle a little bit more than the others, but I am not worried. Towards the end I had a good rhythm and was quite happy so I think we can improve for tomorrow.”
Hamilton, who trails Vettel by nine points in the title race after failing to win in any of this year’s opening three events, said he felt confident his Mercedes team would resolve their issues with tyre performance.
“Baku has not been a great hunting ground for me in the past, but we have had only two races here,” he said. “I am sure we can sort out the tyres. I have rock solid confidence in my team.”