Valtteri Bottas takes pole for Azerbaijan GP ahead of Lewis Hamilton

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Valtteri Bottas beat Lewis Hamilton to top spot by just six hundredths of a second in a thrilling qualifying session for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Mercedes duo took advantage of Charles Leclerc’s dramatic crash to lock out the front row in Baku with Sebastian Vettel only third on an evening to forget for Ferrari.

Leclerc had been the favourite to secure the front slot on the grid after dominating the weekend so far.

But after the 21-year-old put his Ferrari in the barriers, Bottas claimed the spoils with his final throw of the dice to beat Hamilton.

The Finn took his second pole in as many races with the sun setting in Azerbaijan’s capital following two crashes which delayed the running by almost an hour.

First, Robert Kubica hit the barriers at the narrow castle section, and then Leclerc did the same.

The young Monegasque clipped the kerb at the left-handed entry to turn eight, and went head-on into the wall on the opposing side of the track.

“I am stupid, I am stupid,” he said furiously over the radio before hitting his car with both hands as he emerged from the cockpit.

John Elkann, the Ferrari chairman, is in Azerbaijan this weekend, and he shook his head in response to his new driver’s crash.

“No excuses,” tweeted Leclerc, who is set to start from ninth providing there are no hiccups putting his heavily-damaged car back together.

“I’ve been useless.

“I will push to have a better tomorrow. Sorry to all the people supporting us and even more to the whole team that deserved so much better.”

Leclerc has impressed in his formative Ferrari career, but this accident will dent his hopes of convincing the team to install him as their number one instead of Vettel.

The German will also be frustrated after finishing a third of a second down on Bottas. Kubica had earlier compounded the air of misery at Williams after he became the first victim to fall foul of this tight track.

“I am sorry,” the Pole said on the radio.

Deputy team principal Claire Williams looked pensive, perhaps wondering if this weekend could get any worse.

British rookie George Russell, who finished 19th of the 20 drivers – to continue his record of out-qualifying Kubica at every round – is already using the only spare car available to Williams here after he hit a loose drain cover in practice yesterday and wrote off his chassis.

The British team’s mechanics now face an almighty repair job to ensure Kubica will be able to take part in Sunday’s race.

Lando Norris finished ahead of his team-mate Carlos Sainz, by putting his McLaren in a career-best seventh on the grid.

Sainz finished 11th. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will line up in fourth.

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Azerbaijan GP opening practice called off after loose drain cover damages George Russell's Williams

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George Russell has an unfortunate accident at Baku.

Formula One‘s first practice session in Azerbaijan was cancelled after British driver George Russell dramatically collided with a loose drain cover.

Russell, competing in just his fourth grands prix, ran over the manhole cover at high speed, and sustained significant damage to his Williams.

Russell, 21, immediately pulled over to the side of the temporary track which runs through Baku.

He was unharmed but the session, just 10 minutes old, was hastily red-flagged.

A marshal attempted to stamp the drain cover down before the running was cancelled.

To add insult to injury, the recovery crane carrying Russell’s Williams back to the pits then farcically collided with a temporary pedestrian bridge running over the circuit.

The damaged crane began leaking hydraulic oil over Russell’s car leaving the mechanics at Williams with a hefty repair job.

“It’s a calamity of errors,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports. “I’ve never seen that before.”

Russell has been suffering with a respiratory infection this week and was pulled from his media duties on Thursday.

“I got the biggest smack through my body and the whole engine turned off,” he told Sky Sports as he described the alarming incident.

“It’s ruined the floor and I’m a bit worried for the chassis now. We were on the normal racing line and it’s completely ruined our session. It’s not what we need at this stage.”

Claire Williams, deputy team principal for the struggling British constructor, told Sky Sports: “It’s clearly not what we want and it’s not what you expect from a Formula One track. These drain covers are supposed to be bolted down.”

With the session cancelled, officials made their way around the 3.7-mile track ensuring all the drain covers were sufficiently tightened.

But the alarming incident will naturally raise safety concerns ahead of Sunday’s race here. The second practice session is due to get begin at 5pm local time.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Could Baku bring Red Bull into play, and do Ferrari have a decision to make over Charles Leclerc?

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Lewis Hamilton will arrive in Azerbaijan with a six-point lead over Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas at the summit of Formula One‘s standings.

The world champion, 34, is bidding to win the race in Baku for a second time and secure his third victory in as many grands prix this season.

Here, Press Association Sport dissects the key talking points ahead of Sunday’s race.

Championship leader keen to improve

Hamilton may be in the title box seat after establishing a commanding 31-point advantage over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, but the five-time world champion heads to Azerbaijan demanding improvement.

Indeed, the Baku street circuit has not always been a happy hunting ground for the Mercedes star. He was a fortuitous victor last season, after Bottas suffered a late puncture. He crashed in qualifying in 2016, before a loose headrest derailed his chances a year later.

Hamilton, who spent last weekend at the Coachella music festival, said: “It’s a great track, but one that I have struggled a little bit at. I am going there with the mindset that I have got to try and improve on my previous performances.”

Will Leclerc be asked to play second fiddle again?

charles leclerc

Hamilton’s commanding victory at the last race in China was rather overshadowed by Ferrari’s team orders. For the third successive race, Charles Leclerc was subjected to an instruction.

In Australia and Bahrain, he was told not to attack Vettel. Then, in China, he was ushered aside for the German. Ferrari are throwing their support behind the four-time champion, but could they be forced to reconsider their strategy if Leclerc is faster than Vettel this weekend?

Could new Honda engine bring Red Bull into play?

Max Verstappen has looked handy in his Red Bull this season, without really threatening to win. But both the Dutchman and his Red Bull team will hope Honda’s brand new engine, in place for this weekend, will provide the power boost required to tackle Mercedes and Ferrari at Baku’s high-speed circuit.

Baku bidding for thrilling hat-trick

Azerbaijan F1 Grand Prix

Eyebrows were raised when Bernie Ecclestone took Formula One to Azerbaijan in 2016. Yet, the combination of its long straights, slow corners, and narrow track, has ensured the unique street circuit has quickly become a firm favourite.

Hamilton and Vettel banged wheels two years ago as Ricciardo took the chequered flag. Last year, Ricciardo and Verstappen dramatically collided at 220mph. What drama lies in store this weekend?

Raikkonen to spring a surprise

And on that note, now could be the time to place a wager on an unlikely top-three finisher. Since 2016, Baku is the only race that a driver from outside the big three – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – has finished on the podium.

Sergio Perez (Force India – now called Racing Point F1) has placed third on two occasions (2016 and 2018), while Lance Stroll secured an unlikely third for Williams in 2017. Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen is 50/1 to finish on the podium on Sunday. You heard it here first.

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