After four weeks in which Formula 1 fans were starved of on-track action, Charles Leclerc made sure the wait was well worth it as he challenged Red Bull’s supremacy in thrilling fashion in qualifying on Friday, delivering a tremendous final lap to take pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
The Monegasque is enduring his most difficult start to a season since joining Ferrari in 2019, in large part due to problems with the SF-23’s reliability, but topped the timesheets in Q1 to set to the tone for the rest of the session.
He took provisional pole with his final run in Q3 and neither Verstappen nor Perez were able to put together a clean enough run to displace him at the top of the leaderboard.
The result is a huge boost to Ferrari, who have fallen significantly further behind Red Bull in comparison with this stage and last season and who have been haemorrhaging staff members to rivals teams in recent months.
More than anything, though, Leclerc’s stellar showing in Baku underlined the fact that he is currently the best qualifier of anybody in the field in F1, including even Verstappen.
With the Red Bull boasting huge strength in a straight line and an enormous DRS advantage over the other cars on the grid, the profile of the high-speed Baku circuit suits their RB18 perfectly, meaning Leclerc has really outdriven the standard performance of his own machine to come out on top.
The new F1 sprint weekend format, with qualifying for the grand prix coming on a Friday afternoon after just one qualifying session in the morning, undoubtedly increased the probability of a non-Red Bull pole winner.
The Milton Keynes-based squad possesses by far the fastest car, and the longer time they have to hone their setup in the early stages of a weekend the more likely they are to extract its peak performance.
The stunted practice scheduled, combined with the red flag which curtailed running on Friday morning, compromised their progress and rendered qualifying more of an unknown quantity than it would typically have been.
But somebody else still had to capitalise and Leclerc was the only man on track to really take the fight to Red Bull, ultimately securing his third consecutive pole position in Baku.
In both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the opening two rounds of the campaign Leclerc was the nearest challenger to Perez and Verstappen, but was compromised in both races by the engine trouble which has beset Ferrari in the early portion of the campaign. Indeed, his 2022 title challenge was only sustained for as a long as it was because of his ability to outperform Verstappen on Saturday afternoons.
The fact that team-mate Carlos Sainz is simply unable to match the kind of heights Leclerc is able to reach in qualifying sessions only underlines the latter’s one-lap talent. The Spaniard qualified in fourth position in Baku but in truth was never in contention out front, enduring a messy session including a spin and dive into the run-off area at Turn 3.
The Ferrari has typically shown weaker race pace than qualifying speed so far this season, so the likelihood of Leclerc keeping Verstappen and Perez behind to take the win on Sunday is still relatively low.
But Leclerc has at least used his best-in-class qualifying to make life harder for Red Bull this weekend, and given their dominance of Formula 1 right now, fans everywhere will thank him for it.
GPFans is a multi-platform, multi-language brand dedicated to Formula One coverage. We bring you all the ins and outs of the sport, 24/7, everything from up-to-the-minute news and features to the latest viral stories and clips.
We believe that a new generation of exciting, outspoken drivers will make F1 more popular than ever before, and we want to give our users access to as much of their heroes as possible, on and off the track. From Lewis Hamilton to Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo to Sebastian Vettel, we provide in-depth analysis of every every Grand Prix in the season, from Australia to Abu Dhabi.
With Formula One under the new ownership of Liberty Media, how the sport is being covered is evolving, and GPFans will look to be at the heart of this progression into new media, as one of the fastest-growing sites covering the king of motorsports.