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  • Writer's pictureBen Waterworth

Azerbaijan qualifying and sprint wrap: Ferrari back on top but Perez, Red Bull steal the show

A controversial new format has taken the F1 world by storm as the cars return to the track after a four-week hiatus. There has been action aplenty at the always exciting Baku City Circuit in Azerbaijan, with two pole positions and a race win occurring in 24 hours and we haven’t even had the main race yet.


Confused?


Yeah, most of us are too.


But for the most part, the addition of a second qualifying session to set the grid for the sprint race, as well as the traditional qualifying session to set the grid for tonight’s race, has been well received – although not if you’re Max Verstappen.


Qualifying


Qualifying on a Friday is a weird thing to witness but it brought about an exciting session that saw the Scuderia return to the top of the time sheets in 2023 with a stunning pole position by Charles Leclerc.


Leclerc went head-to-head with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a tight session that even saw the two drivers set the exact same time during their initial Q3 runs. However the Ferrari driver eventually got the better of the Championship leader, setting a 1.40.203 to take Pole by 0.188s from his rival.


It was the third consecutive pole for Leclerc at this venue (who added a fourth the next day in the sprint qualifying), although he has never translated any of his poles into a win.

(Photo by PlanetF1)


Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, the most successful driver at the Baku City Circuit in terms of podium finishes, qualified third ahead of Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz, meaning the Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s lock out the first two rows.


It was an up and down qualifying for Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton lining up a strong fifth on the grid while his teammate George Russell just missed Q3 and will start a disappointing 11th.


Australia’s Oscar Piastri, fresh off his first ever points in Melbourne 4 weeks ago, made it into Q3 again and will start 10th, three spots behind his teammate Lando Norris.


The remainder of the top 10 will be filled out by the two Aston Martin’s of Fernando Alonso in 6th and Lance Stroll in 9th, and the impressive Yuki Tsunoda in his AlphaTauri who will start in 8th place.


It was an action packed session with two red flags and car issues, with both Nyck de Vries in his AlphaTauri and the man he replaced at the team, Pierre Gasly in his Alpine, both crashing out to bring out the red flags.


Kevin Magnussen suffered technical issues in his Haas which saw him not make it out of Q3, alongside his teammate Nico Hulkenberg, with the American team seemingly struggling for pace in Baku.


Other notable performances included those of both the Williams’ drivers, with Alex Albon qualifying 13th and Logan Sargeant making his first ever Q2 and will start in 15th. Albon however believed he could’ve been higher after getting stuck behind traffic on his final Q2 run.


QUALIFYING TIMES

1 Charles LECLERC Ferrari 1:40.203

2 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing +0.188

3 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing +0.292

4 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.813

5 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.974

6 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +1.050

7 Lando NORRIS McLaren +1.078

8 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +1.378

9 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +1.408

10 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +1.408

11 George RUSSELL Mercedes 1:41.654

12 Esteban OCON Alpine 1:41.798

13 Alexander ALBON Williams 1:41.818

14 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo 1:42.259

15 Logan SARGEANT Williams 1:42.395

16 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo 1:42.642

17 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team 1:42.755

18 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team 1:43.417

19 Pierre GASLY Alpine 1:44.835

20 Nyck DE VRIES AlphaTauri 1:55.282


Sprint Race


A grid was decided for Sunday, so why not have a separate race that had the grid decided by a separate qualifying that really only counts for 8 cars and the others count for nothing? Yeah. It’s still confusing. But it still brought out an interesting result with some very interesting talking points.


Charles Leclerc backed up his main race pole with a sprint race pole, this time starting ahead of Baku specialist Sergio Perez.


And in what is perhaps a bad omen for Ferrari ahead of the race starting at 9pm AEST tonight, Leclerc was unable to convert his one lap speed into race speed, falling victim to a storming Perez to finish second behind the Mexican who claimed his first ever Sprint Race win.


Perez overtook Leclerc on lap 8 of the 17 lap race, 3 laps after a short safety car period that was brought out due to damage on the track left by the AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda. And as soon as he was past, he never looked back to storm to the 8 points on offer for a Sprint Win.


It will be a concern to Ferrari heading into the main race, who are behind Red Bull in terms of straight line speed in Baku but remain very strong in corners. Given the length of the main straight and the other high speed sections on the circuit, it seems as though high speed is the main benefit to have.


Max Verstappen claimed the final podium spot in the Sprint Race but was far from happy once the chequered flag came out.

(Photo by Sky Sports)


An incident between him and the Mercedes of George Russell on the opening lap at turn 3 left the Dutchman fuming, and with a large hole in his Red Bull, with Verstappen claiming Russell didn’t give him enough space as he overtook him at turn 3 on the inside.


Verstappen and Red Bull both spent the majority of the race complaining about the incident and further took their frustration to the world’s media after the race, as well as even directly to Russell in a fiery exchange which saw Verstappen label Russell a “d—head”.


Russell, who finished fourth, responded in his post-race interviews by defending his position on the inside and saying he won’t just hold back “because he’s Max Verstappen”. Verstappen later referred to Russell as “Princess George” on Dutch television and continued to add to his dislike of the new Sprint Race format.


Behind that drama, the rest of the top 8 was filled by the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso, with the two Spaniards also questioning each other’s racing tactics post-race in the interviews.


Lewis Hamilton meanwhile had a quiet Sprint Race by finishing in 7th, while the second Aston Martin of Lance Stroll drove an impressive race by making up positions from a slow start to claim the final point, helping to add to Aston Martin’s season tally as well as give them their first ever Sprint Race points in the history of the sport.


SPRINT CLASSIFICATION

1 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull Racing

2 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +4.463

3 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull Racing +5.065

4 George RUSSELL Mercedes +8.532

5 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +10.388

6 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +11.613

7 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +16.503

8 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +18.417

9 Alexander ALBON Williams +21.757

10 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +22.851

11 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas F1 Team +27.990

12 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +34.602

13 Pierre GASLY Alpine +36.918

14 Nyck DE VRIES AlphaTauri +41.626

15 Nico HULKENBERG Haas F1 Team +48.587

16 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +49.917

17 Lando NORRIS McLaren +51.104

18 Esteban OCON Alpine +60.621

19 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri Did not finish

Logan SARGEANT Williams Did not start


With Perez looking strong again around Baku, Verstappen fueled with rage after the Sprint Race, and Ferrari hoping to turn their one-lap pace into something longer and break their winless and podium-less start to the season, it’s all shaping up to be one exciting Grand Prix around the streets of Baku.


This article was originally written for The Roar. You can read the published version here




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