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Mercedes pair lock out front row as Bottas beats Lewis Hamilton to Azerbaijan F1 GP pole

Valtteri Bottas took pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, the Mercedes driver putting in an outstanding lap, threading the needle of Baku’s city circuit to see off strong competition from his teammate Lewis Hamilton, who was second. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel was in third, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in fourth. It was a session to forget for Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who had looked strong all weekend but crashed out in Q2. Sergio Pérez took fifth for Racing Point.

Bottas, in fine form this season, saved his best for last in a qualifying session that lasted almost two hours because of accidents. Hamilton was quickest on the first hot runs in Q3, in front of a strong charge by Verstappen and four-tenths up on Vettel. However, on the final runs Bottas had the advantage: he picked up a tow from Lando Norris and managed to edge out his teammate with a time of 1min 40.415sec, five-hundredths in front of Hamilton.

Leclerc had put in some good laps but took too much speed into the tight left-handed turn eight and went on into the barriers. Ferrari were the only team to try the medium tyres for their first run in Q2 but it cost him grip and he locked up. He was unharmed but terribly disappointed as he admitted his error. “I am stupid, I am stupid,” he said.

A similar accident for Robert Kubica had already delayed the session and it caused a further hold-up of 30 minutes as the barriers were repaired.

Bottas’s eighth career pole position is his first in Baku. He took a dominant win in Australia, followed by two second places, with pole at the last round in China. He trails Hamilton by just six points in the world championship and his challenge for the title is clear in what has been the strongest start to a season of his career.

He was beaten off the line in Shanghai by Hamilton, who went on to take the win, and Bottas will be eager to ensure he converts this pole to victory. He has good form in Baku, although he has never won here. In 2017 he was second and last year was leading the race and set for victory until a puncture three laps from the end left him cruelly disappointed.

He had to fight hard for the top spot. Ferrari proved to have strong pace in Bahrain but were found wanting again in China. They had been brought aerodynamic upgrades to Baku and with a straight-line speed advantage were expected to be in good form here. Practice had been curtailed because of the manhole cover that hit George Russell’s Williams in the first session but the Scuderia did look to have found the right setup for their car, which has proved somewhat elusive this season.

They had the grip and balance that was absent in Shanghai, but Bottas and Mercedes were able to once again find another level in qualifying.

After some disappointing performances last year the Finn is on an altogether different plane this season. Low temperatures in Baku make finding the tyre operating window tricky, as does managing a compromise setup to maximise low downforce for Baku’s 2.1km straight with the grip required for the tight corners of the second sector old town. Mercedes, however, once again managed to find the sweet spot for their car for the third time in four races and will be expectant they can convert it into race pace in what will almost certainly be a single-stopper.

Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat was in sixth, with McLaren’s Norris strong again one place back. The Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen were in eighth and ninth. Giovinazzi has a 10-place grid penalty for changing control electronics. Red Bull opted not to run Pierre Gasly in Q2 because he will start from the pit lane as a penalty for having failed to stop at the FIA weighbridge check during second practice.

McLaren’s Carlos Sainz was in 11th in front of the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo. Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon was in 13th, with the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in 14th.

An already testing weekend for Williams became even worse when Kubica crashed out in Q1, clipping the wall on the inside of turn eight. He was unharmed and finished in 20th behind Russell. Lance Stroll in the Racing Point was in 16th in front of the Haas of Romain Grosjean and the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg.

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