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.
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.