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Leclerc beats Verstappen to pole for Azerbaijan Grand Prix

Associated Press Saturday, 29 April 2023, 06:50 Last update: about 2 years ago

Charles Leclerc and Ferrari can start to hope again.

Tenth in the standings and with only a seventh-place finish to his name this season, Leclerc edged past Max Verstappen in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Friday to end Red Bull's streak of pole positions in Formula One this season.

That followed a tough start to 2023 for Ferrari and particularly for Leclerc, who swiftly saw his chances of challenging Verstappen for the title recede, with reliability issues and a car that was frequently the fourth-fastest in the pack behind Red Bull, Aston Martin and Mercedes.

Leclerc and Verstappen had the exact same time midway through the final session of qualifying before both improved on their final runs, with Leclerc going faster by 0.188 seconds in his Ferrari to take pole in Baku for the third year in a row.

“For sure I'm surprised. We came into the weekend thinking that it would be a great weekend if we are in front of Aston (Martin) and Mercedes in qualifying, and in the end we are on pole, so it's a really good surprise,” Leclerc said. “We must not forget that our race car is maybe still behind the Red Bull, so it's going to be difficult to keep the lead, but that's the target.”

Red Bull was on pole for all three races earlier this season, with the driver on pole winning each time. Verstappen said he felt his result was “not bad” but his final run had been “not the cleanest.”

Prior to Friday, the closest Leclerc had come to pressuring the Red Bulls was when he qualified second last month in Saudi Arabia but had to take a 10-place grid penalty. On Thursday, he said he remained “fully committed” to Ferrari following a report in Italian media linking him with Mercedes.

Leclerc has often struggled to convert pole positions into wins, with five career victories but 19 poles and none from either of his two earlier pole positions in Azerbaijan.

Sergio Perez, Verstappen's teammate at Red Bull, was third, ahead of Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. in fourth. Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton was fifth for Mercedes and Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso was sixth. George Russell of Mercedes was 11th after missing the cut in the second qualifying session by 0.004 seconds.

Pierre Gasly had a tough day, coming 19th after hitting the wall in the first session of qualifying. The French driver’s Alpine team was left working to fix his car for the second time after a fire in practice earlier Friday caused damage.

Gasly’s incident caused the second red flag of qualifying after Nyck de Vries took too much speed into a corner and crashed his AlphaTauri into the barrier. De Vries starts 20th and last. Kevin Magnussen is 18th following a technical problem with his Haas.

Friday’s qualifying session determined the grid for the main grand prix on Sunday. There is a sprint race Saturday but for the first time, a second, shorter qualifying session will be held the same day to set that grid.

The new weekend schedule meant there was only a single one-hour practice session, which was disrupted by Gasly's fire and a series of yellow-flag incidents. A typical race weekend without a sprint has three practice sessions before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m really, really happy with the lap. I mean, it’s a very challenging weekend overall for us drivers because very little time to practice," Leclerc said. "We only had one FP1 (first practice session) and then you need to be straight on it but the feeling was good since the start. So we’re really, really happy.”

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