Master of poles Leclerc denies Perez in Baku qualifying

·4-min read

Charles Leclerc wants to "finish the job" after living up to his status as the master of poles this season when pulling a flying lap out of the bag to keep the Red Bulls at bay in qualifying Saturday for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The Ferrari driver, registering his fourth consecutive pole and sixth of the season, has for company on the front row of Sunday's race the in-form Sergio Perez.

"It feels good," said a thrilled Leclerc, who has failed to convert any of his three most recent poles into victory.

"The feeling is there and it's good, so I'm optimistic for tomorrow. I just want to finish the job."

Perez, who won on the streets of the Azerbaijani capital 12 months ago (with Leclerc on pole) and in Monaco last time out, once again outperformed his world champion teammate Max Verstappen.

Verstappen starts on the second row with Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari.

Leclerc had a healthy championship lead after the third race in Australia but goes into this eighth round of the season nine points behind Verstappen, with Perez only six points back in third.

"All poles feel good, but this one I didn't expect," he added.

"I thought the Red Bulls were stronger in the first and second qualifying sessions but on the last lap everything came together."

The man from Monaco nailed his flying lap in the top 10 shoot out, expertly eking the maximum out of his car around this complex circuit with its sinuous old city section and airport runway-long straight.

Perez, in the prime of his racing life with his confidence flowing, had popped up with a sub-1min 42sec lap to lead the charge into the final throw of the qualifying dice.

Sainz briefly flirted with his first ever pole but with the qualifying timer almost at zero Leclerc crossed the line in 1min 41.359sec to top the timesheets.

- 'Who knows?' -

Perez threw everything at his last lap but ended up 0.282s slower.

"Yeah, Q3 is when you go balls out and I hit the wall a couple of times. At the end we had a problem with the engine, we couldn't turn it on and I was out on my own with no 'tow'.... would it have been enough for pole, who knows?"

Verstappen, only 0.065s off his teammate, reported: "The start of the lap was good but then it went away from me, tiny mistakes. Still as a team, second and third, we have a good opportunity tomorrow."

Perez has given Red Bull team chief Christian Horner an interesting dilemma in terms of which of his drivers to back should there be a repeat of Barcelona when the Mexican was given team orders to let Verstappen through for the win.

Mercedes struggled in practice with their under-performing 2022 car bouncing on the bumpy track, so George Russell starting on the third row after placing fifth in qualifying was a decent result.

The AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly joins him ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the other Mercedes sharing the fourth row with Yuki Tsunoda while Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso complete the top 10.

Hamilton, more than a second off Leclerc, was brutally blunt in his assessment of the afternoon.

"We're not even racing those guys at the front, they're in a completely different league," said the frustrated seven-time cham[pion.

"So, it seems that these guys are miles ahead, and then there is this pack that we're in," added Hamilton, who is under investigation for slowing down as he appeared to wait for a tow from the car behind.

The opening session was red-flagged towards the end when Lance Stroll's front wing flew off his Aston Martin after pranging the barrier at turn two, his second crash in as many laps.

This left Valtteri Bottas, in 17th, in danger of falling at the first qualifying hurdle for the first time in 143 grand prix and Monaco in 2015.

Hamilton led a convoy of cars heading back out when the session restarted at 18.40 local time, the temperatures dipping and the shadows lengthening.

They all crossed the line at the cut off time for a final lap with Bottas miraculously sneaking through with the 15th and final Q2 ticket, his proud record intact.


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