BAKU, June 11 (Reuters) – Charles Leclerc unleashed a dazzling display of speed around the unforgiving Baku street track to put his Ferrari on pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The Monegasque, taking his fourth pole in a row and sixth from eight races this season, will line up alongside the Red Bull of Sergio Perez after beating the Monaco-winning Mexican by 0.282 seconds.
His championship rival Max Verstappen, who leads the 24-year-old by nine points in the overall standings, will line up on the second row of the grid in third, alongside Leclerc’s Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz.
His qualifying performance earned Leclerc his 15th career pole.
It also made the Leclerc the first driver to take a repeat pole in Baku, having also started last year’s Azerbaijan race from the front.
“This one I didn’t expect and I thought Red Bull were stronger,” he said.
“In the last lap everything came together.”
Verstappen and Perez had taken turns at the top of the timesheets during the first two phases of qualifying.
But Perez reported an engine issue while his Dutch team mate, who let out a frustrated sigh over the team radio, said his car did not quite have the pace to take the fight to his Ferrari rival.
The pair’s Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, however, assured both drivers that they were still very much in the fight for the win on Sunday.
“At a track you can overtake at, hopefully we can give them a hard time tomorrow,” he said.
Leclerc, who despite his streak of pole positions took his last win at the Australian Grand Prix in March, knows pole on Saturday is only half the job done.
The Monegasque, who lost what appeared to be easy wins in the last two races in Spain and Monaco to reliability and strategy gremlins, will be aiming to maintain the Baku race’s record of producing a new winner each year.
There has been plenty of drama on the Azerbaijan track, which runs around a barrier-lined layout.
During qualifying, Lance Stroll crashed his Aston Martin to bring out the red flags in the hour-long session’s opening phase.
The Canadian’s team mate Sebastian Vettel also planted his Aston Martin in the barriers but was able to continue.
Lewis Hamilton was summoned by the stewards for slowing down ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Alexander Albon vented his frustration over the team radio, calling for Alpine’s Fernando Alonso to be penalised after the Spaniard appeared to drive off the track and down the escape road right in front of the Thai driver’s Williams.
George Russell qualified ahead of Mercedes team mate Hamilton for the third race in a row to take best-of-the-rest honours in fifth.
Pierre Gasly put his AlphaTauri sixth ahead of the seven-times world champion.
The Frenchman’s team mate Yuki Tsunoda was eighth ahead of Vettel and Alonso who rounded out the top-10.
Qualifying got underway 15 minutes late due to a Formula Two crash that damaged the barriers and pushed back the start of final practice.
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle in Baku and Alan Baldwin in London; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Clare Fallon and Pritha Sarkar)
Photo Monaco’s Formula One driver Charles Leclerc of Scuderia Ferrari reacts after taking pole position in qualifying of the Formula One Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at the Baku City Circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, 11 June 2022. The Formula One Grand Prix of Azerbaijan will take place on 12 June 2022. EPA-EFE/Hamad Mohammed / POOL