Three is the magic number as Sebastian Vettel claimed his third consecutive pole position in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Ferrari driver’s first run in the Q3 was good enough to secure pole position by 0.179 seconds from Mercedes driver and title rival Lewis Hamilton after a lock-up spoiled his second attempt.
But in the final seconds of the session, it seemed Kimi Raikkonen was set for pole position having set the fastest times of all in the first two sectors.
The Iceman threw away that time by being too aggressive on the throttle out of the Turn 16 left-hander, which led to him losing enough time that he did not improve on his first run time.
This put Raikkonen down in sixth position, behind Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.
Five of the top six will start on the supersoft Pirellis, having used them to set their times in Q2, the exception being Raikkonen who locked up on his flying lap and set his time on his second run using the ultrasofts.
Ricciardo appeared to benefit from a slipstream tow from Raikkonen to pip his team-mate by less than a tenth of a second.
Esteban Ocon performed strongly throughout qualifying to end up as best of the rest in seventh, a second off the pace, and just ahead of Force India team-mate Sergio Perez.
Nico Hulkenberg was ninth fastest, although has to serve a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change and will hand the place to Renault team-mate Carlos Sainz.
Lance Stroll came close to knocking Ricciardo out in Q2 with his late lap, which was just 0.103 seconds slower than the Red Bull driver’s supersoft pace and good enough for P11.
That put him three tenths clear of Williams team-mate Sergey Sirotkin, who survived an investigation into impeding Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson in Q1 without any action being taken.
Fernando Alonso was P13 for McLaren, having been shuffled down from ninth place after the first runs despite improving on his second set of ultrasofts.
Sauber’s Charles Leclerc was P14, while Haas driver Kevin Magnussen was just under seven tenths down in P15 after lapping over a second slower than he had in Q1.
Stoffel Vandoorne was the quickest driver to be eliminated in Q1 thanks to Stroll’s late lap of one minute, 44.359 seconds, which was 0.130 seconds quicker than the McLaren driver.
That also relegated Pierre Gasly to P17 after the Frenchman’s second run was ruined by an incident with Toro Rosso team-mate Brendon Hartley.
Hartley was moving slowly with a puncture at Turn 14 when Gasly happened upon him at the fast left-hand kink while on a lap that looked quick enough to get him into Q2.
Gasly just managed to swerve around the right side of Hartley and narrowly avoid contact, but he mounted the outside kerb and ended up in the Turn 15 escape road before returning to the pits – labelling what happened “unacceptable” over the radio.
“I was trying to get out of the way of Gasly but it was too late,” said Hartley over the radio. “I feel pretty stupid about Gasly.”
Hartley had to abandon his quick lap from the first run, and did not have time to have another run after his puncture so ended up down in P19 behind Ericsson having not set a serious lap time.
Haas driver Romain Grosjean was P20 having not set a time thanks to stopping with a gearbox problem early in Q1.
So a brilliant result for Sebastian Vettel with his 53rd pole position in Formula 1. His Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen was too aggressive in the final sector and had to settle with P6.
Sunday’s race is going to be fascinating as Mercedes and Red Bull are looking strong. The long straights at Baku will help overtaking so Vettel needs to keep an eye on his mirrors to stay out in front.
1 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m41.498s
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m41.677s
3 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1m41.837s
4 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 1m41.911s
5 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Renault 1m41.994s
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m42.490s
7 Esteban Ocon Force India-Mercedes 1m42.523s
8 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1m42.547s
9 Carlos Sainz Renault 1m43.351s
10 Lance Stroll Williams-Mercedes 1m43.585s
11 Sergey Sirotkin Williams-Mercedes 1m43.886s
12 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Renault 1m44.019s
13 Charles Leclerc Sauber-Ferrari 1m44.074s
14 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1m43.066s*
15 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1m44.759s
16 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Renault 1m44.489s
17 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso-Honda 1m44.496s
18 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari 1m45.541s
19 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso-Honda 1m57.354s
20 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari –
*Five-place grid penalty following gearbox change