Baku Qualifying: Bottas stumps them all

Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas claimed pole position for the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix after an incident-packed and dramatic qualifying session at the Baku City Circuit with Lewis Hamilton second quickest for another Silver Arrows front row.

After keeping their powder dry throughout the morning session allowing the paddock to wallow in the dream of a Ferrari lock-out for qualifying. But when the World Champs turned up the wick their ‘Wingman’ delivered to his obvious delight.

Stumping them all, meaning not only his rivals, but also media, pundits, experts, armchair sages, visionaries, etc. No one predicted that and the wickedly naughty chuckle when he told he had snatched pole told the whole story. Bottas is clearly enjoying this.

Earlier during Q1, Robert Kubica bent his Williams severely when he crashed through the tricky castle section. This brought out the red flag as the damaged car was recovered.

About 15-minutes later when the session resumed Charles Leclerc also crashed in the exact same spot (as Kubica) after overshooting his braking point when he looked a sure bet for pole position.

Thereafter the session got trickier as it went into hours in the day the drivers had not previously experienced. but Bottas rose to the occasion in the final run of Q3 – under the radar and out of the blue – he popped a superb 1:40.495 which was a tad faster than his teammate who briefly topped the timing screens.

Bottas said afterwards, “It’s a nice feeling to get it on the last lap. Ferrari have been really strong. Charles was out by a mistake and as a team we did a really good job after such a difficult practice.”

“It’s all about small margins and I got a good tow on the last lap. The corners I had to drive as well but it’s fine details and I hit the sweet spot.”

Second-placed Hamilton added, “It’s been so close all weekend. Ferrari have looked incredibly quick and Valtteri did an exceptional job.”

“This is a massively great result for us. We came here without an upgrade, the Ferraris looked particularly quick and also Max – for us to lock out the front row in the circumstances I’m really grateful for and puts us in a fighting position tomorrow.”

“Pace-wise we are slightly closer in race trim than it seemed in qualifying. Valtteri is always quick here and I’ve had my work cut out this weekend,” added Hamilton.

For Ferrari it was bitter disappointment, fooled to believe they had a good package, when the cards were down again Mercedes trumped them in an embarrassing matter.

Prior to Leclerc bending metal, pole position was already annexed but the crunch of Tecpro on carbon-fibre shocked just about everyone that witnessed the shunt.

It did not get much better thereafter as Sebastian Vettel simply did not have the firepower to match the silver cars… yet again. He will start from third.

Asked if Merc stole pole, Vettel said, “I don’t know if they stole it, I think they were a bit quicker than us today.”

“For me it started a bit slow, towards the end it was getting better but it was quite tricky, the session was very long, the sun was going down. It was difficult to find the right balance of pushing in the out lap and playing with tow.

“I had a good lap but I had no tow to close the lap and that cost a bit. I think we got sort of the maximum out but we were expecting to have a better session with Charles and myself being closer to the front.”

Three-tenths of a second separated the top three.

Half a second down on the top time was Max Verstappen in the Red Bull using the Spec-2 Honda engine package, which also served Daniil Kvyat well with six place in the Toro Rosso.

Splitting the fizzy drinks pair on the timing screens was the pure water purveyor Sergio Perez in the Racing Point in fifth, while the son of the team’s owner failed to make it out of Q3, in which Lance Stroll was four-tenths of a second slower than his teammate.

With seventh place, Lando Norris again saved face for the Renault-powered posse, using easily the worst power unit of the four marques on the grid, the rookie thumped his more experienced teammate and both of the works team veterans.

Antonio Giovinazzi was all smiles when he savoured his first Q1 appearance and eighth place in the Alfa Romeo, a tenth faster than Kimi Raikkonen in the sister car who will line-up ninth on the grid.

Before he crashed, Leclerc did enough to make it into Q1, and thus (if the chassis does not have to be replaced) he should start from tenth on the grid.

FIA Blow-By-Blow Report

In Q1, Vettel led the early exchanges, setting a time of 1:42.348. His Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc, who had held sway in every practice session, soon bypassed that and his lap of 1:41.426, established a tough benchmark.

Verstappen, meanwhile, suffered a lock-up into Turn 7 on his opening run and his first lap left him in down in P12. On an improving track he was left vulnerable and he returned to the pit lane for a fresh set of tyres and prepared for another attempt.

Hamilton was also having difficulty finding the sweet spot with tyres and after overcooking his entry to Turn 3 he was forced to take the escape road. He too would require more laps to make his way through to Q2, but eventually climbed to third place above Verstappen.

Gasly then provided proof of the rapid track evolution. The Frenchman who is facing a pit lane starting after being penalised for a missing a call to the weighbridge in FP2, set the quickest first sector on his second run.

Then, benefiting from a tow provided by Stroll, he crossed the line in just 1:41.335 to claim a top spot he held until the chequered flag.

With Gasly first ahead of Bottas, Hamilton and Verstappen, and with the chequered flag out, there was drama at the end of the session. Kubica crashed heavily on the outside of Turn 8. The Pole clipped the barrier on the inside of the corner and was then pitched across the narrow track at high speed, hitting the opposite wall.

The session was red-flagged, and out went 16th-placed Stroll, followed by Grosjean, Hulkenberg, Russell and, in P20, the unfortunate Kubica.

At the top, with Gasly first ahead of Leclerc, Hamilton and Max, fifth place went Sainz, with Mercedes’ Bottas sixth ahead of Vettel and Räikkönen and Giovinazzi.

Also through to Q2 were Albon in ninth, followed by Pérez, Kvyat, Norris, Magnussen and Ricciardo.

After a lengthy delay to repair the barriers, Verstappen went quickest with an opening lap of 1:41.388. Team-mate Gasly, with a pit lane start in prospect, sat out the session.

Ferrari’s driver, meanwhile, took to the track on medium tyres and the choice bit Leclerc hard.

On his second run, the Monegasque driver carried too much speed into Turn 8 on tyres not yet in the window. He locked up, straight-lined the corner, and hit the barriers in the same spot as Kubica. The session was again immediately red-flagged.

Another lengthy delay followed. On the resumption, Vettel, who had dropped to P12 just ahead of the red flag, was first out on track, this time on soft tyres. The German vaulted up the order and a second flyer eventually netted him P5 ahead of Leclerc, Räikkönen, Norris, Kvyat and Giovinazzi.

Eliminated at this stage were Sainz, Ricciardo, Albon, Magnussen and Gasly.

The finale of the marathon session proved to be thrilling. Verstappen was first out on track at the start of the segment and took provisional pole with a lap of 1:41.447. That was quickly bypassed by Hamilton, with the champion posting a lap of 1:40.703 to take provisional pole ahead of Vettel and Bottas.

As other peeled off track for new tyres and a second run, Verstappen without a fresh set available, stayed on track for a second flying lap and the Dutchman jumped to the front row with an lap of 1:41.069.

Vettel was first out in the final runs, prioritising good tyre temperature over gambling on a tow, and in the end it cost the Ferrari driver.

Vettel failed to match Hamilton’s opening run time and after crossing the line in P2 then had to watch as Bottas jumped ahead to claim pole position with a time of 1:40.495, just 0.059s ahead of Hamilton, who made mistakes in the opening two corners of his lap.

The second runs dropped Verstappen to fourth place. He will start alongside Vettel and ahead of Pérez. Sixth place went to Kyat, with Norris in seventh ahead of Giovinazzi and Räikkönen. Leclerc qualified in P10 but will move up one place on the grid as Giovinazzi is set for a 10-place grid penalty.