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Leclerc beats Verstappen to surprise Baku pole

Leclerc beats Verstappen to surprise Baku pole

FORMULA ONE: Charles Leclerc has swept to pole position for tomorrow’s (Apr 30) Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of Max Verstappen after a tense and crash-strewn qualifying hour last night.

By Michael Lamonato

Saturday 29 April 2023, 09:26AM

Charles Leclerc during yesterday’s (Apr 28) qualifying session for the Formula One Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

Charles Leclerc during yesterday’s (Apr 28) qualifying session for the Formula One Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Photo: AFP

Leclerc and Verstappen started the pole-getting final segment of qualifying by setting identical times around the 6.003-kilometre circuit before embarking on their final laps as the sun sunk lower on the horizon.

They were closely matched in the first sector, but a sizzling second split saw Leclerc pull ahead as he hustled his Ferrari down the slalom from the top of the hill in the shadow of the Baku fortress. At one stage his tyres kissed the barriers and came perilously close to ending his evening in a heap of rubble.

Verstappen had no answer, and despite a session-best final sector, he came up wanting by 0.188 seconds to the Monegasque.

It’s Ferrari’s first pole position of the season and Leclerc’s first since Singapore last October, and it broke Red Bull Racing’s stranglehold on single-lap pace.

“I’m surprised,” Leclerc admitted. “We came into the weekend thinking that it would be a great weekend if we are in front of Aston and Mercedes in qualifying, and in the end we are on pole, so it’s a really good surprise.”

But the five-time race winner cautioned that converting his single-lap pace into victory would be more difficult.

“We must not forget that our race pace maybe still behind the Red Bulls, so it’s going to be difficult to keep the lead,” he confessed. “But that’s the target.”

Verstappen was unperturbed to lose pole, saying that his car was set-up for better race performance.

“We know that we have a very good race car,” he said. “So all in all it’s not bad. You always want to start ahead, but we’ll have to pass one car.”

His teammate, Sergio Pérez, was third and 0.292 seconds off pole after a snap of oversteer at turn 3 undermined his final lap, but he too was optimistic for the race.

“Just to get through, without making mistakes, without much practice, it was pretty challenging,” he said. “But I mean, if there is a circuit where you can race, then it’s definitely here.”

All three had survived a chaotic start to qualifying, with two cars crashing early in Q1, each triggering a red flag that blew out the finishing time of the session by almost half an hour.

C and C Marine

Rookie Nyck de Vries was the first in the wall, spearing straight into the barriers at trun3 after locking up. The Dutchman was unhurt and will start tomorrow’s race from last.

The session had only just resumed when Gasly crashed at the corner, the Frenchman admitted he simply didn’t brake hard enough before creaming his Alpine car into the barriers.

It was a shame for him and the team, which had just finished rebuilding his car after a fire during practice earlier in the day. He’ll start tomorrow in 19th place.

Carlo Sainz completed the top four for Ferrari, but the Spaniard was almost 0.8 seconds slower than his pole-getting teammate after looking uncomfortable throughout the day.

Lewis Hamilton was fifth with an excellent lap from his otherwise troubled Mercedes, pipping Fernando Alonso to the position, though the Spaniard had a DRS problem that left him without his usual boost to straight-line speed.

Lando Norris was in his first Q3 appearance this season, beating an excellent Yuki Tsunoda, Lance Stroll and Oscar Piastri.

George Russell will start Sunday’s grand prix from a disappointed 11th after being pipped to Q3 by Hamilton by only 0.003s.

Esteban Ocon will follow in 12th ahead of Thai driver Alex Albon, Valtteri Bottas and rookie Logan Sargeant.

Zhou Guanyu qualified 16th ahead of Haas duo Nico Hülkenberg and Kevin Magnussen, the latter suffering a technical problem that prevented him from completing his run plan.

Gasly will start 19th ahead of De Vries.

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix is being run to a new sprint format, which will see Saturday start with another qualifying session to set the grid for the 100-kilometre sprint race later that day. Tomorrow’s grand prix will go ahead as normal based on yesterday’s qualifying results.

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