Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas were unable to extract pace out of their car around the streets of Baku throughout practice and looked completely out of the picture for the pole position fight as they spent most of the sessions even struggling to feature in the top ten. 

A massive slipstream helped Hamilton to third in final practice but in reality, the team was off the pace and staring at the prospect of another disastrous weekend following a lacklustre display last time out in Monaco. 

But Hamilton recovered superbly after a difficult start to the weekend to put his car on the front-row of the grid with a lap that was just two-tenths shy of Charles Leclerc’s pole effort and, crucially, good enough to outpace his main title rival Max Verstappen

Hamilton labelled his second place in qualifying as a “monumental result” for Mercedes and praised his team’s hard work that yielded a transformative improvement in competitiveness. 

“Honestly it’s one of the greatest feelings for us,” said Hamilton. “For the difficult experience that we’ve gone through, being out of the top 10 all weekend and really struggling to understand and extract performance from our car - it feels fantastic. 

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“It’s a bit overwhelming and I’m really happy and grateful to be here, to have got the lap in. It puts us in for a much different race than we anticipated after yesterday. 

"I’m just really incredibly proud of the whole crew for the amazing work and being open-minded,” he added. “We made a lot of changes, there’s been so much work back at the factory overnight and then even during today.”

Hamilton put the turnaround - which he described as the biggest he has experienced at Mercedes - down to pivotal changes made at the end of final practice on Saturday morning. 

“We got to P3 and it was pretty much a disaster, so it’s the biggest jump that we’ve been able to make on an actual day between P3 and qualifying for sure,” he explained. 

“It literally was night and day, the car. But we discovered something at the end of P3 and continued to push down in that direction and it paid dividends, so I’m really happy about it.” 

Asked to explain the changes that were made to his car in FP3, Hamilton revealed a revised set-up direction helped him unlock more performance from the tyres, something that had also hampered Mercedes in Monaco. 

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Meanwhile, opting to complete extra warm-up laps across the three segments of qualifying aided Hamilton to get his tyres into a better working window. 

“We did some changes overnight, which didn’t rectify the issue going into today,” he said. 

“Then in P3 we tried a few different things and then just managed to try something right at the end, just with the set-up, and it unlocked the potential a bit. 

“It was really just about getting the tyres to work. We just can’t get our tyres to switch on like the others generally can, so the night and difference feeling was that the tyres suddenly started working and we were kind of back in the game.” 

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff provided more insight into the thinking behind the set-up changes, saying that a final decision was only reached after a “thorough engineering programme.”

“We were not shy of trying extreme things, which at the end were as extreme as we had expected and weren't a silver bullet,” Wolff explained. 

“It was just really [about] crunching through the numbers, trying things, getting the feedback of the drivers and eventually we had the car in a more decent place. 

“So it was the last run in FP3 where we tried to confirm the step and the car was there or thereabouts.” 

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Mercedes’ decision to switch to a low-downforce rear wing set-up on Hamilton’s car ahead of qualifying also paid dividends, having initially trialed a higher-downforce-spec in FP3. 

This gave Hamilton a crucial straight-line speed boost, which proved especially effective when he benefited from running in Bottas’ tow on the first flying laps of Q3. 

Hamilton admitted the tweaks left him feeling anxious because he feared the team might have taken the wrong direction. 

“It’s difficult for us to understand why we’re in the position we’re in, because we’re trying lots of different things and we don’t always get the results that you’re expecting to get,” the Briton said. 

“No matter what we’re doing we couldn’t really fix it. So from my point of view, I’m pushing the guys like ‘I want to try this, I want to try that’. 

“I had a lot of anxiety because I don’t know if you’re going to get it right, or get it wrong and it means that you’re out of the top 10 like we were earlier this morning and then yesterday. 

“You just have to let it go. We were here last night till 11 o’clock and again for the session 10 minutes just before we’re still making small changes and we just have to shake it off and go all out.

“It’s an amazing feeling. I think we’ve got the right balance. Do we have the perfect wing? I’m sure you could always say you could have a slightly better balance, but it did the job today.”

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In stark contrast to Hamilton, Bottas was only capable of claiming 10th on the grid, leaving the Finn adamant something wasn’t quite right with his Mercedes W12. 

But Wolff refuted suggestions that the team had effectively sacrificed Bottas to assist Hamilton’s bid to challenge for an unlikely pole in Baku. 

“Since the beginning of the joint journey of Valtteri and Lewis, we have tossed a coin who would have the choice to decide if they were running first or second,” he said. 

“And this weekend it was Lewis' turn to choose whether he runs first or second on the road and he chose second obviously. So this is the same system. It alternates from race to race between the drivers.”

After producing some encouraging lap times during the race-pace simulations on Friday afternoon, Hamilton is optimistic that he should be competitive on Sunday.

“Our race pace was a lot better than the single-lap pace,” he said. 

“We were miles off in a single lap and we were a lot closer in race pace. We don’t understand why, but I like to think hopefully we are in that same position.

“We weren’t as quick as the Red Bulls but we are in the mix so I think tomorrow we should be close to these guys, hopefully.” 

Wolff agreed with Hamilton’s assessment, adding: “The long runs were very good. I would say yesterday they were on the same pace as the Red Bulls. 

“So I think we have a decent shot at a good result tomorrow.”

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