Charles Leclerc breaks Red Bull dominance with pole in Azerbaijan

Charles Leclerc saw off Max Verstappen to put his Ferrari on pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Verstappen and Leclerc set identical times in their opening Q3 laps in Baku before the Monegasque returned for a final run to beat his Red Bull rival by 0.188 seconds.

Sergio Perez qualified third ahead of Leclerc’s Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz with Lewis Hamilton fifth, 0.974 sec off the pace.

Formula One bosses have tinkered with the weekend format here in Baku by introducing two qualifying sessions.

Friday’s result decides the order for Sunday’s Grand Prix, while a second shorter qualifying session on Saturday determines the starting grid for a 17-lap dash – the first of six sprint events this season – later that day.

The sport’s chiefs hope the revamp will enliven the weekend and Leclerc’s pole here is the first non-Red Bull pole of a campaign the world champions have dominated.

Verstappen has opened his championship defence with two victories from three rounds – with team-mate Perez winning the other – but Leclerc’s lap will provide hope of a Ferrari fightback.

“It is good to be back on top,” said a delighted Leclerc over the radio.

“I am surprised,” he added after stepping out of his car. “We came into the weekend thinking it would be great if we are ahead of the Mercedes and Aston Martin cars but we are on pole.”

Mercedes’ turbulent start to the year continued with Hamilton the best part of a second down.

His team-mate George Russell will line up in 11th after he was knocked out in Q2. Hamilton sneaked through to Q3 by virtue of lapping 0.004 sec faster than his Mercedes team-mate.

“Ah, sugar,” said Russell after he was informed of his early bath.

Fernando Alonso qualified sixth for Aston Martin, one spot ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris. Lance Stroll finished ninth with rookie Oscar Piastri rounding out the top 10.

Earlier, Q1 was delayed by 28 minutes after Nyck de Vries and Pierre Gasly both crashed out.

De Vries went in too hot on his brakes at the third corner, missing the apex and slamming into the wall. Out came the red flag, and a 17-minute barrier repair job followed as De Vries’ written-off AlphaTauri was winched away.

The running had restarted for less than two minutes before the red flags were deployed again. Turn 3 claimed a second victim as Gasly thudded into the wall and came to a halt.

“I couldn’t stop the car,” said the Frenchman who missed the majority of practice earlier on Friday when his Alpine caught fire.

The two men will start Sunday’s 51-lap Grand Prix from the back of the pack.