Friday wasn’t the best of days for Sebastian Vettel as he bids to get back in winning ways and lengthen his lead at the top of the table Saturday however proved to be a much better day for the championship leader.
After a few problems on Friday, Saturday got off to a better start for Sebastian Vettel as he was fastest in the final practice session. He finished 0.361 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton with Kimi Raikkonen in third and Max Verstappen fourth in his Red Bull.
Vettel was in top form in this practice session and at one stage had a lead of 0.7 seconds before a late surge by Hamilton closed the gap. The defending world champion will have been pleased to get that close having asked his engineers for advice on how to get his car closer to the pace. It appeared his problem was a solvable one as he was told to use third not fourth gear when going into Turn 16. That’s the last corner before the straight and doing so took the time off. His team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who had been ahead of Hamilton for most of the session finished fifth fastest.
It was another good session for Force India with Sergio Perez in sixth and Esteban Ocon ninth. Kevin Magnusson did well to get his Haas into sixth.
Williams had a good first practice session on Friday, but it wasn’t such a smooth ride today. Sergey Sirotkin crashed his car towards the end of the session causing the red flag to be brought out. He crashed into the wall on the exit of Turn Three after not quite getting his entry speed right and going wide. Before that though there were more promising signs with team-mate Lance Stroll finished eighth and the Russian tenth. The McLaren of Fernando Alonso was 11th fastest with team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne down the field in 18th.
The Sirotkin crash caused problems for other drivers who were left battling to complete their preparation work for qualifying particularly Red Bull who were leaving their runs late. Thankfully Verstappen was able to complete the lap that got him fourth fastest in the session and for once it wasn’t him crashing his car. It wasn’t such great news for team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who finished down in 12th.
A good day for Vettel continued as he took pole for Sunday’s race ahead of Lewis Hamilton as he looks to extend the nine-point lead he has over the British driver. Vettel finished 0.179 seconds ahead of Hamilton, but it could so easily have been another driver on pole.
It looked as if it was going to be Kimi Raikkonen’s pole, but he made a mistake at the final corner and could only finish sixth. He’d struggled earlier in qualifying and will have to start tomorrow’s race on a less durable tyre compound. Valtteri Bottas will start in third followed by the Red Bulls of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen respectively.
It was his first lap in the top ten shootout that clinched pole for Vettel as that opened up a lead of 0.342 seconds on Lewis Hamilton. The gap did narrow but not by enough which is a good job because Vettel had a lock-up at Turn Three on his final qualifying lap.
Seventh and eighth places on the grid will be occupied by the two Force India cars with Esteban Ocon just 0.0024 seconds ahead of Sergio Perez. The final two top ten places were filled by Renault with Nico Hulkenburg 0.285 seconds ahead of Carlos Sainz. However, Hulkenberg will start 14th after being given a five-place grid penalty for an unauthorized gearbox change.
There was nearly a major problem between the two Toro Rosso’s with Pierre Gasly close to running into the back of Brendon Hartley’s car as they approached Turn 15. Whereas Gasly was on a quick lap, Hartley’s Torro Rosso had suffered a puncture and was in the middle of the track. Gasly did clip Hartley’s car but thankfully no major damage was caused though the Frenchman wasn’t too happy about it, telling his engineers that what happened was “unacceptable.”
11th and 12th places went to the Williams of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin in their Williams. With the grid penalty for Hulkenberg that means Stroll will start in 10th. Fernando Alonso was 13th fastest for the third race in a row. His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne had a poor qualifying session. He was eliminated in Q1 and was close to half a second slower than Alonso.
Speaking after qualifying, Sebastian Vettel believes tomorrow will see an intense race where anything can happen and possible involvement from safety cars. Lewis Hamilton believed that despite Ferrari being quick, Mercedes are still in the mix and he’ll be looking to give Vettel “a hard time tomorrow.”
It’s been an interesting couple of days in Baku and there doesn’t appear to be that much between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. This track is good for overtaking so there should be lots of changes at the top of the leaderboard. I’ll be back with another blog next week, till then enjoy your racing.
By Steve Ashfield for Pillow Motor Sport