Verstappen set for fightback after red flag frustration: 2021 Azerbaijan GP qualifying report


Charles Leclerc qualified on pole for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix — and will get to start there — after red flags disrupted qualifying, leaving Max Verstappen down in third

Max Verstappen after qualifying for the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Maxim Shemetov - Pool/Getty Images

Has Formula 1 ever been better? Consider this: at the end of Q2 on a long, 100sec-plus Baku lap, just three-hundredths of a second covered the top five drivers, in four different makes of car. Extraordinary.

At close of business on Friday, Red Bull appeared to be in complete control with Sergio Perez quickest after his best Friday for the team, and Max Verstappen just a tenth adrift having gone backwards on set-up after topping FP1. Ferrari was close in terms of one-lap pace but Charles Leclerc in particular had disastrous levels of tyre degradation, taken to be the result of running a low-downforce set-up.

Mercedes, meanwhile, was in dire straits. Lewis Hamilton was 11th and Valtteri Bottas 16th, the Merc W12 devoid of grip and pace. It looked like Monaco all over again, just worse, with Toto Wolff anticipating his team’s toughest ever qualifying session.

But, fast-forward 24 hours and there was Leclerc’s Ferrari on pole for the second successive race with Hamilton never in his life happier to be second! And Verstappen never more hacked-off to be third, actually his best ever starting position in Baku.


Leclerc took a surprise second consecutive pole

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Leclerc loves street tracks, Baku in particular. He excelled here for Sauber in his first season of F1 and looked set for pole with Ferrari in 2019 until he went straight on at Turn Eight. He made a slight faux pas at Turn 15 in FP2 but got away with a damaged front wing and was always in touch on Saturday morning without setting the ultimate pace, an honour that went to none other than Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri as the little Faenza team topped a practice session for the first time in its history!

But at the conclusion of an incident-packed qualifying interrupted by no fewer than four red flags (equalling the record for a single session at Hungary in 2016) Leclerc had almost a quarter of a second in hand over Hamilton. So, do we need to wax lyrical about one of those sublime laps from the young Moneqasque?

Err. No. “It was quite a shit lap,” I thought, Charles admitted. “There were two or three corners where I did small mistakes but then I got a big tow from Lewis!”

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Never one to blow his own trumpet, Leclerc’s lap was not that bad, just maybe not up to the high standards of a man who feels comfortable running millimetres from walls and barriers. Whatever, he’ll take it. A second red-flag affected pole in a row, this time no fault of his own. Whether he can keep his nose in front on a track ranked first for on-track overtaking in the first two years of its existence, remains to be seen.

But first, let’s wind back to the first of those red flags, which appeared when Lance Stroll put his Aston Martin into the T15 barrier before he had a time on the board. No sooner had the session restarted than Antonio Giovinazzi buried his Alfa in the tyres, also without a time. Lance will start one slot ahead by dint of a quicker FP3 time. The two Haas cars and Nicholas Latifi completed the Q1 eliminees.

The next man to bring out the red was Daniel Ricciardo, who locked his left front and slid into the wall at Turn Three in Q2, sentencing himself to 13th on tomorrow’s grid.

That though, doesn’t tell the whole story. While Lando Norris was enjoying a great post-Monaco reception at the McLaren factory where his third place trophy was on display, Ricciardo had been hard at work in the simulator and came to Azerbaijan, where he won in 2017, feeling progress had been made. And, in Q1, on used rubber he’d been eighth, just a tenth from Norris, and more confident in the car’s feel. Don’t rule him out of a decent race tomorrow.

Lando Norris in qualifying for the 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Norris drops three places from sixth after an infraction during one of the four red flags

Antonin V incent/DPPI

The final red flag came when Yuki Tsunoda, who did a great job to reach Q3 for the first time, buried his AlphaTauri in the Turn Three tyres. Behind him, Carlos Sainz could not turn in and had no option but to have his own accident down the escape road. There was no time to restart the session and for the second race in a row, Sainz was not best pleased and will start fifth.

If he was unimpressed, that didn’t make a start on Verstappen’s feelings. “For what it’s worth you were purple in S1/2 and Hamilton had a tow…” was the message from race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase. But the lap was never completed and Max now faces the task of passing two of F1 toughest nuts if he is to take a third 2021 win.

In the background, the limbo wing argument rumbles on. Christian Horner advised Toto Wolff that, given the front wing on the Mercedes, maybe he’d be better off keeping his mouth shut. Wolff responded by calling him a windbag who likes to see himself on camera… And we’re not a quarter way into the season yet!

After his fabulous effort in comfortably topping FP3, Gasly followed it up with a career-best fourth in qualifying, just two thousandths shy of Verstappen.

Behind his old buddy Sainz, Lando Norris gave McLaren a best-ever P6 in Azerbaijan but was then hit with a three-place grid drop for failing to enter the pitlane under the red flag. Lando seemed momentarily unsure what to do and was travelling at high speed when the red appeared, so had extenuating circumstances. The stewards took the view that in normal circumstances it would be a five-place drop, so they would exercise a degree of leniency.

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Sergio Perez also had his lap interrupted and, frustratingly, faces an uphill struggle to deliver the result that his Red Bull is capable of. But Sergio is always quick around Baku as well as being a strong racer, so is another to watch tomorrow.

Tsunoda, who has been moved to Italy to be more closely under the wing of Franz Tost and his team, starts eighth, ahead of Fernando Alonso, despite his off.

Alonso, who outqualified Esteban Ocon (who lines up 12th) for the first time since the Bahrain season-opener, seemed unimpressed by some of the excesses of his contemporaries.

“It was a messy qualifying and hard to get into a rhythm,” Fernando said. “We didn’t use the full potential of the car but I guess that was the same for everyone. But it’s a bit unfair that cars that crash can change their parts and we’re in parc ferme. I know that’s the situation but here it’s half the grid. Perhaps people need to calm down a bit and drive at 98% on a street circuit. Everyone will need to take care of the tyres tomorrow but we’ve got a good car and should be able to take good points.”Bottas, the pole man last time F1 visited Baku, played the team game by towing Hamilton on the first Q3 runs (it was Lewis’s turn to choose to run first or second) but didn’t manage to find one himself and is left contemplating Sunday afternoon from 10th on the grid. But if anyone is overdue a slice of luck, it’s Valtteri.

Somehow, you can’t help feel that there’s a lot more drama still to come. A winner? I still fancy Verstappen from third, but neither would I be surprised if there was contact with either Hamilton or Leclerc. Perhaps another podium beckons for Pierre Gasly? It would be no more than he deserves on current form.


2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix qualifying results

Position Driver Team Time (Q3)
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1min 41.218sec
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1min 41.450sec
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1min 41.563sec
4 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 1min 41.565sec
5 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 1min 41.576sec
6 Sergio Perez Red Bull 1min 41.917sec
7 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 1min 42.211sec
8 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1min 42.327sec
9 Lando Norris* McLaren 1min 41.747sec
10 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1min 42.659sec
Q2 times
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 1min 42.224sec
12 Esteban Ocon Alpine 1min 42.273sec
13 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1min 42.558sec
14 Kimi Räikkönen Alfa Romeo 1min 42.587sec
15 George Russell Williams 1min 42.758sec
Q1 times
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams 1min 43.128sec
17 Nikita Mazepin Haas 1min 44.158sec
18 Mick Schumacher Haas 1min 44.238sec
19 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo No time
20 Lance Stroll Aston Martin No time

*Three-place grid penalty for red flag infraction