Baku specialist Charles Leclerc happily fell into the arms of his mechanics and celebrated his first pole position of the season with relief. Surprisingly, the Ferrari star snatched first place on the grid for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix from Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen on Friday. “It’s always difficult to get a good lap here. It’s really hard to do everything perfectly here,” said world championship leader Verstappen, who remains optimistic for the race on Sunday (1 p.m. / Sky): “We know we have a good car in the race, so it is not all bad.”

While Verstappen missed his third pole in the fourth race, Leclerc continued his series on the Caspian Sea in the Ferrari. For the third year in a row, the 25-year-old Vice World Champion is going into the Grand Prix from the front. For the first time this year there is also no Red Bull at the top. “I’m absolutely surprised,” said Leclerc. He actually wanted to compete with Aston Martin and Mercedes – and suddenly found himself in front of Verstappen and his teammate Sergio Perez, who finished third. “We mustn’t forget that we’re probably behind Red Bull in the race,” said Leclerc, however: “It’s a very demanding weekend for us drivers.”

Even before qualifying, Verstappen not only had good memories of Baku. Although he won here for the first time last year, he retired in 2021 when he was in the lead due to a puncture. After the impact on the course wall, he got out of his car and kicked the tire in frustration. In 2018 he even collided with his then teammate Daniel Ricciardo – and both Red Bull were thrown out.

Qualifying was turbulent. First Nyck de Vries crashed into the barriers after braking in his Alpha Tauri. Because the wrecked car had to be recovered and the car’s nose got stuck, there was a 17-minute stoppage. Driving mistakes are punished particularly severely in Baku, because the barriers are close on the temporary course and don’t forgive any mistakes. Pierre Gasly found out a little later when he also crashed his Alpine into a wall. It was interrupted again, Gasly was out too.

The low sun, strong winds at times and ever lower temperatures made the conditions challenging. However, Leclerc did not let himself be disturbed and drove the best lap in front of Verstappen in the first section. At this point, Nico Hülkenberg retired in 17th place and in the Haas car has little chance of scoring championship points again. “It didn’t go optimally,” said the 35-year-old: “The laps weren’t quite clean, we left a bit behind. This is frustrating and disappointing.”

In the second knockout round, Verstappen prevailed in front of Leclerc, at the beginning of the last section both even drove exactly the same time. After all, the Scuderia man had the better end for himself.

Qualifying for the Grand Prix on Sunday took place on Friday after a change in the weekend format. On Saturday (3.30 p.m. CEST / Sky) there will be the first sprint race of the year over 100 kilometers. For the first time there will also be a separate qualification in which the starting line-up will be determined. The so-called Sprint Shootout takes place five hours before the short race.

Before the fourth of 23 rounds of the season, Verstappen leads the overall standings with 69 points ahead of stable rival Perez (54) and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso (45) from Aston Martin. Hülkenberg is ninth with six points.