Bottas clinches pole in Azerbaijan, Hamilton second as Leclerc crashes
Mercedes claimed a second consecutive front-row lock-out with Valtteri Bottas beating his Silver Arrows team mate Lewis Hamilton to pole position in a dramatic qualifying session for the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku.
Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel struggled to match the pace of his rivals after the session ran late into cool evening conditions due to multiple incidents. He'll start from third place alongside Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
The favourite to take pole position, Vettel's team mate Charles Leclerc, ended up in the barriers mid-way through Q2 after pushing too hard in an ill-starred attempt by the team to start the race on medium tyres.
Despite dry and sunny weather, conditions at Baku presented their own unique set of challenges on Saturday. A still very dusty track combined with gusting headwinds had caught out more than a few drivers in the earlier final qualifying. The relatively cool temperatures also meant many teams were struggling to get tyres into the optimum temperature range in time for their flying laps. And of course, the nature of the Baku City Circuit itself meant that there were plenty of hazards waiting to catch out the unwary.
First out of pit lane when the session went green was Williams' George Russell, eager to get a head start after losing all his Friday practice time due to that unfortunate encounter with a drain cover. But he wasn't alone for long, with almost everyone following close on his heels and only the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly initially holding back.
Valtteri Bottas set an early benchmark of 1:42.430s, 0.222s faster than practice pacesetter Charles Leclerc, but both were displaced by Sebastian Vettel who found an extra eight hundredths over the Finn. However Lewis Hamilton had been forced to take to the turn 3 escape area on his first run which forced him to abort the lap, and on the second attempt he was still only able to go sixth fastest and was 1.149s.
Leclerc's second run put him back on top with a time of 1:41.426s. Similarly improved times from the likes of Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, Toro Rosso's Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat, McLaren's Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, and from Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Sergio Perez (Racing Point) and the arrival of the two Red Bulls on the scene meant that Hamilton soon plunged down to 15th place, putting him in the unfamiliar - and uncomfortable - position of being on the bubble with regards to making it through to Q2.
Fortunately Hamilton's next effort was significantly better and good enough to boost him to third place albeit still eight tenths off Leclerc. That put Renault's Daniel Ricciardo on the edge of failing to make the cut, along with Haas' Romain Grosjean, Racing Point's Lance Stroll, and of course inevitably the two Williams of Russell and Robert Kubica. Slowest of all was Nico Hulkenberg in the second Renault, who had run off on his first attempt and then been held up by yellow flags for Hamilton's mishap on his second.
Any thoughts that Gasly wouldn't bother to show up for qualifying after being handed a pit lane start for the race due to a weighbridge infraction on Friday were dismissed when he went top with a super-impressive 1.41.335s, 0.091s quicker than Leclerc. By contrast, Verstappen had been struggling with flat-spotted tyres and had sunk to 14th place amid the rapid improvements elsewhere. Fortunately he soon put that to rights on his final run and moved up to fourth place behind Hamilton.
A last push from Ricciardo saw the Australian narrowly survive elimination. However Stroll, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Russell were all out after the session was slightly curtailed by a red flag for Kubica, who clipped the kerb at turn 8 and broke his left-front suspension which plunged the Williams into the opposite barrier nose-first.
There was a 25-minute delay to retrieve the crumpled Williams and repair the dishevelled safety barriers, meaning that by the time Q2 got underway the sun was getting inconveniently low in the sky and track temperatures were falling fast in the now-heavily shaded areas of the circuit.
Most of the remaining drivers were quick to get back down to work, the exceptions the two Alfa Romeos and Gasly, who was sitting the rest of the session out. Bottas took the early advantage over Hamilton on the soft compound tyres, until an even better time of 1:41.388s saw Verstappen take control of the timesheets.
However Ferrari's attempt to run the session on medium tyres - which would then be the set they would start the race on - comprehensively backfired: Leclerc's first run was only good enough for fifth, and Vettel was out of the top ten and in the elimination zone in 11th place, almost two seconds slower than the Red Bull.
Leclerc attempted to push harder, but paid the price with a big accident after going too fast into turn 8, just seconds after Vettel had suffered his own lairy moment at the same corner. Knowing that pole had been his for the asking, a mortified Leclerc acknowledged over the team radio "I am so stupid!", adding later: "I deserved what happened today."
Marshalls blasted fire extinguishers at the badly damaged SF90, which was also leaking fluid onto the track; inevitably, the session was red flagged with just over seven and a half minutes remaining to allow for further lengthy clean-up operations.
There was still time for the remaining drivers to make further runs when the session resumed, although Verstappen felt no need to take any risks and stayed safely tucked up on pit lane. The under-pressure Vettel was first to deploy, now on the soft compound tyres, and he was fast enough to improve to fifth just behind Perez despite the falling temperatures.
Also through to the final round were Raikkonen, Norris, Kvyat and Giovinazzi, the Italian just bumping Sainz out out of the top ten. Ricciardo also failed to progress, along with Albon and Magnussen, while as expected Gasly didn't turn a wheel in Q2.
Q3: Bottas beats Hamilton as Vettel falls short
Almost an hour later than they'd been expecting, the remaining cars set out for one last push. Verstappen was initially top, but Bottas quickly muscled him aside and then Hamilton pulled out an ace from his sleeve to go faster with a lap of 1:140.703s to put him four tenths quicker than Vettel.
Perez was fifth fastest with Kvyat sixth ahead of Norris and the two Alfa Romeo's Giovinazzi and Raikkonen. While the other cars pitted, Verstappen was able to put in another push that put him just ahead of Vettel for second.
With Verstappen now done, the rest of the field were all back out on a suddenly crowded track. Vettel was at the head of the line which gave him the best opportunity, but his improved lap was just short of Hamilton. However the Briton's own lap failed to squeeze out any more time and it left him vulnerable to a superlative effort from his team mate Bottas, who benefitted from a tow down the straight and duly picked up pole position for Sunday's race.
Behind the all-Silver Arrows front-row, Vettel and Verstappen will start immediately behind them with Perez and Kvyat sharing row three. Norris held on to seventh place with Giovinazzi beating his team mate Raikkonen to seventh.