For the first time since the Indianapolis 500 was last contested as a round of the Formula 1 world championship, back in 1960, starting grid for a grand prix is official well over 24 hours before the race itself begins.
The heavily compacted sprint weekend schedule means that the grid for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has been set after a combined 105 minutes of track time – at least 20 of which were wasted under red flag conditions in the opening practice session. But before drivers take to the grid spots on Sunday that they’ve earned on Friday, there’s the Saturday sprint race sideshow for them all to enjoy first.
Heading into the fourth round of a 2023 season where Red Bull have almost been at liberty to turn up and simply cruise to victory, they head into an evening during a race weekend after being beaten in a competitive session for the first time this season. And it’s fair to say that the result was unexpected – not least of which by Ferrari.
“It’s a really big surprise for me – for the whole team, I think,” pole winner Charles Leclerc admitted after the session. “Coming here, we did not expect that. So it’s amazing to be starting on pole for Sunday’s race.
“We must not get carried away because we know that our weak point is more the race, where we seem to be behind the Red Bulls. But it’s a very big surprise for us to be on pole anyway.”
But one person who was not shocked to see Leclerc secure his third consecutive pole position in Baku was the man who will start alongside him on the front row of Sunday’s grid – championship leader Max Verstappen.
“Not really [surprised] by Charles,” Verstappen said. “We know that he’s been really good around here. Otherwise you don’t get three poles in a row, right?”
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The reality is Leclerc was in contention with the Red Bulls from the opening practice session. He matched them for pace early on the hard tyres despite the Red Bulls setting their early laps on the mediums, before splitting both on softs at the end of the session.
What was striking was where Leclerc managed to find lap time against the Red Bulls. In practice, Verstappen and team mate Sergio Perez appeared to gain the most time through the mid-speed, 90-degree corners in the opening sector, but Leclerc started gaining it back again through the middle…
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