Charles Leclerc achieved his second successive shock Formula 1 pole position as Azerbaijan Grand Prix qualifying ended in similarly bizarre circumstances to Monaco with a late Q3 red flag.
The Scuderia Ferrari driver led the way after the first runs in Q3, but Yuki Tsunoda crashing at Turn 3 with just a few seconds of the session remaining – and Carlos Sainz also hitting the barriers just behind the AlphaTauri – secured Leclerc’s pole ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
The session had already been heavily disrupted and delayed by three other red flags, caused by Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi crashing in Q1 and Daniel Ricciardo doing likewise in Q2.
Leclerc’s time of one minute, 41.218 seconds initial lap in Q3 came as he led the pack around, but crucially picked up a significant tow when he caught up with Hamilton – completing a second warm-up lap running behind teammate Valtteri Bottas – in the closing stages of the track.
This boosted Leclerc to a 0.232 seconds advantage over Hamilton when the Mercedes drivers did complete the first of what should have been two runs in Q3, with Bottas ending up down the order as he had towed Hamilton.
Red Bull, the favourite for pole position, ended up with Verstappen in third as he could not match Leclerc on the opening Q3 runs despite being towed by teammate Sergio Perez.
Pierre Gasly took an excellent fourth as the AlphaTauri drivers completed their first Q3 laps in the middle part of the segment when the rest of the top ten were in the pits preparing for the final goes that were ultimately aborted.
Tsunoda towed Gasly around – the rookie’s lap ending up being good enough for P8, with Bottas shuffled down to P10.
Along with the rest, he never got the chance to improve as Tsunoda – who had stayed out for a second go following a cool-down lap where the AlphaTauri drivers became mixed in with the rest of the pack, now preparing for their final runs – crashed at Turn 3 – the 90-degree left at the end of the back straight early in the first sector.
He braked too late and locked his left-front, which sent him nose-first into the barriers, with Sainz “losing the focus” as he followed Tsunoda’s lock-up and crashed, the Ferrari’s rear swinging around and its front wing being knocked off against the wall on the inside of the Turn 3 run-off area.
Behind the polesitter, Hamilton, Verstappen and Gasly came Sainz, Lando Norris and Perez, while Fernando Alonso was sandwiched between Tsunoda and Bottas in P9.
Norris faces a post-qualifying investigation for a possible red flag procedure infraction during Q1.
Q2 ended 90 seconds early after Ricciardo locked up his front left and slide straight into the wall on the outside of Turn 3.
The McLaren’s right front was knocked off in the impact and the middle segment was not restarted, which meant several drivers – including Ricciardo – were eliminated based on their initial run times.
Sebastian Vettel was vocally livid to miss a Q3 spot by 0.029 seconds as he ended up P11, ahead of Esteban Ocon, who had clipped the wall with his right rear exiting the same corner as where Ricciardo, who qualified P13, would later crash.
Kimi Raikkonen was P14 ahead of George Russell, who maintained his 100 percent progression from Q1-Q2 for Williams in 2021.
This came after he missed the opening minutes of Q1 as his team worked to switch him back to a previously used engine as the new one he had been running in FP3 suffered a water pump leak and had to be removed.
In Q1, the incidents involving Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi meant the opening segment lasted over 40 minutes.
Both drivers hit the wall at the fast Turn 15 left – the turn heading downhill at the end of the second sector where Leclerc and Verstappen crashed in FP2 and FP3 respectively – with Stroll’s occurring first just three minutes into Q1.
The Aston Martin driver struck the wall nearly square-on with his right front after sliding to the incident with understeer.
The impact snapped the suspension and he pulled over to the inside of the track’s final real corner, with the red flags brought out when only Leclerc had completed a timed lap, as he had been running at the end of pack.
After a 12-minute delay, the session restarted, with the Mercedes pair switched from mediums to the softs that the rest of the field were running, but proceedings only lasted a further five minutes before Giovinazzi hit the wall.
The Alfa Romeo driver locked his left-front and went further into the barriers than Stroll, with Giovinazzi stopping immediately with the right-side of his car heavily damaged.
The red flags returned with the Mercedes drivers among those still yet to set a time, although Hamilton eventually took his used softs to the fastest time in the opening segment.
When Q1 eventually finished, Nicholas Latifi and the Haas duo were eliminated, with Mick Schumacher leading Nikita Mazepin, who had to take to the escape road at Turn 4 on his final flying lap – where he was running just in front of Hamilton.
So a dramatic qualifying session with four red flags. In the end, Charles Leclerc survived the chaos to take the fastest lap and pole position in Baku.
Azerbaijan Grand Prix, qualifying positions:
1 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1:41.218
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:41.450
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda 1:41.563
4 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda 1:41.565
5 Carlos Sainz Jr. Ferrari 1:41.576
6 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1:41.747
7 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda 1:41.917
8 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda 1:42.211
9 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault 1:42.327
10 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:42.659
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes 1:42.224
12 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1:42.273
13 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes 1:42.558
14 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1:42.587
15 George Russell Williams-Mercedes 1:42.758
16 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes 1:43.128
17 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari 1:44.158
18 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari 1:44.238
19 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes No time
20 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari No time