In keeping with the theme of the 2019 Formula 1 season thus far, Mercedes once again capitalised on Ferrari’s slip-up in qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday to snatch away an unlikely front row lock-out.

Just moments before the start of Q1, team boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports F1 that Ferrari had looked “almost untouchable” in practice, and that Mercedes would not be able to grab pole unless it found a “silver bullet”.

And while Mercedes’ cause was certainly aided by Ferrari’s own struggles, the team nevertheless sprung a big surprise to deal another blow to its chief rival’s early-season hopes.

Charles Leclerc was the man to beat heading into qualifying after his dominant display through practice, culminating in an FP3 lap that saw him pull out over 1.4 seconds on the Mercedes drivers. While Mercedes still had time in hand – the team does not run its engine in high power modes like Ferrari does in practice – to recover such a large gap seemed unlikely.

The disjointed nature of qualifying in Baku wouldn’t have eased the pressure on Ferrari. Robert Kubica’s Q1 crash delayed proceedings by half an hour, meaning the track was a touch cooler than usual for the beginning of Q2. Ferrari’s confidence was such that it sent both Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel out on Medium compound tyres, expecting their pace to be enough to get through to the final stage of qualifying without using the Softs.

While Leclerc’s lap was good enough to get into Q3 – even if he couldn’t participate – Vettel made a big error on his lap, leaving him P11 after the first set of runs. After turning his car in at Turn 8, the rear of the Ferrari SF90 jutted out to the right, almost glancing the wall. Vettel caught the snap and kept himself out of trouble, but it will have done little to allay the pressure on the Ferrari pit wall.

But worse was to come. Leclerc’s first lap slotted him into fifth, but the Monegasque felt there was more time to be gained and, after one cool-down lap, opted for a second push on his set of Mediums.

Coming into Turn 8, Leclerc misjudged his braking point, causing him to lock up, run past the apex and instead bury his car into the wall.

“I’m so stupid,” Leclerc said in a calm-yet-biting self-criticism that we have heard numerous times in the past. He managed to hop out of the car unharmed, but he was quick to raise his hands to his head as he contemplated the cost of his error.

“I deserve what happened today,” Leclerc said in the TV pen after the session. “I am very, very sad for what happened, but I deserve it. I’ve been stupid, as I said on the radio. I’ve calmed down but I still think I am stupid, that does not change.

“I don’t want to say anything stupid, but I think after looking at FP1, FP2 and FP3, and Q1, pole was possible today, but I threw all the potential in the bin.”

Explaining the crash, Leclerc said: “I just braked as much as I did on the Soft, but I was on the Medium, and I locked up. I don’t want any misunderstandings - there are no problems with the tyres. It is just myself.” It was a refreshing dose of honesty from the young man, but he must be careful not to get into a slippery slope – one trodden by Valtteri Bottas last year – of taking too much blame upon his shoulders.

With Leclerc out of the picture, the job of sparing Ferrari’s blushes lay with Sebastian Vettel. The team fitted him with a set of Softs to get through to Q3 without any concerns, but with more time wasted and the track cooling further, things were slipping away from Ferrari.

Vettel split the Mercedes drivers after his opening Q3 run, with Max Verstappen also laying ahead after deciding to go for one long run on his Soft tyres instead of pitting and taking a fresh set. Vettel was one of the first out of the pits to begin his final run, and quickly made his way to the front of the pack, wary of any potential incidents ahead that could result in yellow flags and deny him a final flying lap, or of the clock counting down as it did in China two weeks ago.

Mercedes took a completely different approach. Hamilton and Bottas were early out of the pits, but pulled to the side of the track at pit exit so they could complete practice starts. This filtered them towards the rear of the pack, thus carrying a high amount of risk. If any of the cars ahead made a mistake, the chances were neither Mercedes would get a second lap in.

Hamilton aired his concerns over the team radio as he came through the tight second sector, but both he and Bottas slowed to find some extra space before putting the power down out of Turn 16.

There may have been a number of cars ahead, but this meant they had punched a nice hole into the air that allowed both Mercedes to get a tow. Bottas found the sweet spot behind McLaren’s Lando Norris, staying back enough to avoid losing downforce through the twisting middle sector, but still within proximity to pick up a slipstream for the final run to the line. While Vettel had the security of knowing he would get his lap in, the lack of cars ahead meant he had no tow, costing him precious time against the Mercedes.

The tactic came off perfectly for Bottas as he managed to leapfrog not only Verstappen and Vettel, but also Hamilton, who lost two-tenths in the first sector that meant going purple in S2 and S3 wasn’t good enough for pole.

For the second race running, P1 belonged to Bottas, who could not hide a smirk of disbelief upon hopping out of his car. It was an unlikely success – something Mercedes is growing a habit for this year.

“After yesterday’s practice and also this morning, we saw Ferrari was extremely quick,” Bottas said.

“At the beginning of qualifying, they seemed to be out of reach, but you never know what’s going to happen, so you don’t give up.

“In the end, Charles went off, and at the end it was down to one lap, and I’m really happy for us. It was a very nice lap in the end. It’s very sweet.”

Vettel was left disappointed after finishing three-tenths of a second off Bottas’ pole lap, a gap he felt could have been bridged had he benefitted from a tow.

“It’s always a compromise, and if you get too close in the middle sector then you lose out,” Vettel said.

“But I would say going with the other people [the tow] would have gained around three tenths, so it would have been a bit closer with somebody in front.

“The track was getting cooler and the car more difficult to drive, and I prioritised to push on the outlap to have the tyres in the window for the start of the lap. Now I sort of regret that I didn’t take the gamble. But I think it was still probably the right call.”

For Leclerc, P9 on the grid tomorrow is a somewhat fortuitous result given his crash. The lap got him through to Q3 and, with Antonio Giovinazzi dropping 10 places due to his penalty, he’ll gain another position. He’s been on the pace all weekend, meaning a recovery towards the front is not out of the question – he’ll also be on the alternate strategy, remember, starting on Mediums – so should not be ruled out of the picture.

For today though, Mercedes has taken the spoils once again. It didn’t quite find a single magic bullet to turn the tables on Ferrari, yet its clever, canny approach paid off yet again to make small steps throughout qualifying, cumulatively being enough for a front row lock-out.

 

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