Charles Leclerc on pole in Azerbaijan after crashes halt qualifying

BAKU, Azerbaijan — Charles Leclerc won his second consecutive pole position, again under the red flag because a crash stopped qualifying, to earn the top starting spot for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Leclerc set his time of 1 minute, 41.218 seconds early in Saturday’s third session. Championship leader Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were among the drivers just starting their late flying laps when Yuki Tsunoda hit the wall and then Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz crashed right behind Tsunoda.

It brought an immediate end to the session and put Leclerc on pole for the second consecutive grand prix.

It was Leclerc who crashed his Ferrari to end qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix two weeks ago, and even though he retained his starting position at his home track, repairs to his car were not completed in time and he did not race.

“It feels good, it feels better than Monaco, though it still doesn’t feel as good as a pole position should feel, just because of the red flag,” Leclerc said. “We definitely did not expect this type of performance so it’s looking good for the future.”

Tsunoda’s crash brought out the fourth red flag of the qualifying session and stopped any challenge to Leclerc.

“To be honest, we didn’t expect to be as competitive as were this weekend until now,” Leclerc said.

Hamilton was .232 off the pace in second — a rebound after Mercedes had struggled to match Red Bull and Ferrari in practice. Verstappen took third, .113 back. Both were left to speculate if they could have beaten Leclerc.

“I can’t say that I would definitely have been quicker than Charles, but there was definitely time left on the table,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen called the session “a stupid qualifying” and rued his lack of a slipstream on the long straight.

Red Bull and Mercedes have spent the week bickering over what Hamilton has called Red Bull’s “bendy” rear wing — it flexes at speed to reduce drag — and then Red Bull accused Mercedes of having its own questionable front wing. Ferrari then sidestepped the debate to take pole.

Mercedes’ lack of pace Friday had sparked speculation than even reaching the top-10 shootout in qualifying might be a challenge. In the end, Hamilton was left shocked by how much better his car felt, but teammate Valtteri Bottas could only manage 10th. The Finn has less than half of Hamilton’s points tally after five races and has yet to beat Hamilton this season.

“We definitely weren’t expecting that because we’ve been struggling all weekend. You can definitely see it. We continue to have difficult discussions in the background and challenging one another and just never taking no for an answer,” Hamilton said of the turnaround.

“We’ve moved around and made so many changes over these two days, just chasing your tail has been so difficult. We really worked overnight and between the sessions and I’m really proud of everyone for keeping positive and to be up there and to be so close to these guys is a great start.”

Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi both went off at the same corner in the first qualifying session before setting a time, and Daniel Ricciardo crashed in the second session. The Australian is in his first season with McLaren but has finished behind teammate Lando Norris in four of five races so far this year.

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