The story of the Baku weekend going into qualifying was a simple one: Charles Leclerc versus Sergio Perez. The two had been swapping fastest times throughout all three practice sessions, so it was no surprise that, with a minute to go, they again found themselves neck and neck for first place.
In the end it was Leclerc who drove yet another on-the-limit, inch-perfect lap to take his fourth pole in a row, beating Perez by three tenths of a second. Max Verstappen, who had been consistently overshadowed by his teammate for the second race in a row, finished a tenth further back in third. Carlos Sainz had been there or thereabouts the entire session, but a scrappy final flying lap saw him relegated to fourth.
George Russell again continued his fine run with fifth place, despite his Mercedes continuing to suffer painful porpoising issues. Pierre Gasly quietly drove his way to an impressive sixth, while an unhappy Lewis Hamilton again struggled in seventh. Hamilton’s pain might get worse: at the close of the session he was under investigation for impeding Lando Norris, with a grid drop appearing to be a distinct possibility.
Yuki Tsunoda finished eighth, while the veteran pair of Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso rounded out the top 10.
Earlier on, even though Perez and Leclerc had been going head to head it was Verstappen who set the initial pace as qualifying got underway. It didn’t take long before the other Red Bull and Ferrari drivers were in on the act, and the four were soon covered by just two tenths of a second.
The red flag was brought out when Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll crashed at turn seven with two and a half minutes to go, having nudged the wall at a different part of the track mere minutes earlier. With few drivers feeling comfortable – not many were more than half a second from the drop zone – there was fierce jockeying for position when the session resumed, but the final couple of minutes saw little change in the order. Both Haas and Williams drivers were knocked out along with the unfortunate Stroll.
Q2 kicked off in similar fashion, Verstappen pipping Perez by a few hundredths of a second before the pair were usurped by the Ferraris, with Carlos Sainz taking top spot from Leclerc. As the pace increased so did the mistakes, with Vettel, Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris all having brushes with disaster, while most of the frontrunners touched the wall on their flying laps. There were no crashes, though, and at the end of the session both Alfa Romeos were gone – with Zhou Guanyu impressively outqualifying Valtteri Bottas – along with the McLaren pair of Norris and Daniel Ricciardo and the Alpine of Esteban Ocon.
Will Leclerc snap his streak and, for the first time since Australia, be able to convert his pole into a win? With the margins at the front so thin, and with the narrow streets of Baku often making for an entertaining and unpredictable race, all four frontrunners will feel in the hunt for tomorrow’s main event.