Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc claimed his sixth pole position in eight 2022 Grands Prix in Azerbaijan. The 24-year-old Monegasque hopes for a change in the misfortune that has prevented him from winning the last two races, in Spain and Monaco.
Leclerc starts in Baku nine points behind world champion Max Verstappen, with Ferrari 36 points behind Red Bull Racing in the constructors’ championship after four successive victories for the British team.
The fight for pole position was once again a two-team affair, with Ferrari and Red Bull blocking the front two rows of the grid for the sixth time. But it is not Verstappen who shares the front row of the grid with Leclerc, but his team-mate Sergio Pérez, who has outqualified the Dutchman for the third time this season.
Pérez, whose win in Monte Carlo a week ago was his third race win and saw him supplant Pedro Rodríguez as Mexico’s most successful F1 driver, is something of a street circuit specialist in Baku.
He has finished on the podium three times since racing joined the F1 calendar in 2016, including winning a dramatic race in 2021 when leading Verstappen suffered a tire puncture at high speed.
Leclerc, too, is dynamite around the tough 3.7 miles and is the first man to take more than one pole position on the track. A feature of the season was Ferrari’s single-lap superiority, but Red Bull’s advantage in the race, with stronger straight-line speed and more benign tire use often allowing Verstappen to overhaul Leclerc.
Still, Leclerc, who has only suffered from Ferrari’s questionable racing strategy at Monaco, remains optimistic. “The pole lap was really good,” he said. “I’m excited for the race. Tire management is a big thing here and when we released the car upgrade in Spain we took a step forward which we couldn’t see in Monaco. I’m excited for the race.
Verstappen was by far the dominant Red Bull driver en route to his maiden world title last year, with an average qualifying advantage of 0.4 seconds over Pérez. This year, however, with different rules and a modified car design concept, there were often only hundredths of a second in between. Pérez, with a new two-year Red Bull contract extension, rides with confidence. Just six points behind Leclerc in the championship and 15 behind his team-mate, it will be interesting to see if he is pushed aside to give Verstappen priority in the race.
Baku, with its long front straight, is one of the easiest F1 tracks to overtake and the proximity to walls and barriers means a race with a lot of risk and often multiple safety car interventions and restarts.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “We had a good competitive race car all around and hopefully we can give Ferrari a hard time.”
Behind the two dominant teams, George Russell was the best of the rest for Mercedes in fifth, outclassing seven-time World Qualifying Champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton for the fifth time in eight starts, with a standout performance from Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri which split the two Mercedes on the Azerbaijan grid.
Stewards investigated Hamilton for driving unnecessarily slow and delaying Lando Norris at the end of Q2, with the McLaren driver missing out on the top 10, but the FIA decided against taking action.
“I have mixed feelings,” Russell said. “The car felt good but it’s shocking to see the lap times and to see that we are more than 1.3 seconds from pole position.
The team has still not been able to resolve its bouncing or porpoising issue that makes both drivers uncomfortable when the car is set to its lowest ride height to optimize essential downforce around a inherently bumpy track.
Russell said: “I feel every bump and the car is as stiff as I’ve ever felt. “It bounces so much that I can barely spot the braking zones.”
“I’m not surprised,” Hamilton confirmed, “It was the same in Monaco… But it’s a tricky and often chaotic race where anything can happen.”
Hamilton is not mistaken, which Leclerc will be well aware of. He would much rather have a simple, drama-free afternoon to get his championship challenge back on track. It is unlikely that he will get it.