Lewis Hamilton will start from pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix after dominating a disrupted Q3 session.
A Hamilton pole position seemed unlikely for much of the weekend, the Briton struggling with tyre warm-up during practice, much as he did on similar circuits in Russia and Monaco.
Making matters worse for Hamilton was that a late red flag meant he wasn’t able to complete an additional warm-up lap to prepare his tyres, requiring him to get his car into the groove.
Most impressive was that, despite all that, the Briton pulled almost a half-second gap over the rest of the field to take his 66th pole position.
“That was one of the most exiting laps I’ve had all year,” he said. “We’ve been struggling to get temperature into these tyres — but the lap just got better and better throughout. I’m ecstatic, I’m so happy.”
Bottas was dejected to qualify second after the weekend suggested he could play the Mercedes leading man.
“Disappointing, obviously,” said the Finn. “I was going for pole, but the lap in the end was not perfect.
“Lewis had a good lap at that point. Disappointing, but second place is not bad.”
Kimi Räikkönen qualified third but was more than a second off the pace, which was surprising considering that up until today Ferrari had had an advantage over Mercedes when it came to keeping the tyres in the correct temperature window.
“It’s been difficult with the tyres, to switch them on,” said Räikkönen. “It’s been a struggle.
“Luckily the last set was a sightly better feeling on the warm up side — if you switch them on, you can go a lot faster.
“Obviously we’re not close enough to Mercedes, but I think it has a lot to do about how you switch on the tyres.”
Sebastian Vettel had a difficult Saturday, his afternoon interrupted by a power unit change after free practice three that robbed him of track time and Ferrari’s latest and most powerful engine specification. He qualified fourth and 1.2 seconds off the pace.
Max Verstappen was marginally behind the German in his Red Bull Racing car, the Dutchman looking dangerous around this circuit all weekend.
Daniel Ricciardo, his teammate, however was less sure-footed, causing a late-session red flag when he oversteered on the exit of the chicane, whacking his car against the outside barrier.
The Australian eliminated himself without a competitive time, dropping him to tenth on the grid.
Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon qualified sixth and seven with less than a tenth between them, while Lance Stroll led William teammate Felipe Massa by 0.1 seconds in eighth and ninth.
The temptation to manufacturer a slipstream between teammates was significant in Q2, with the Baku circuit’s ludicrously long straight teasing potential benefits.
As tends to be the case, however, making it work effectively proved difficult, and no car made it into Q3 thanks to a teammate’s slipstream alone.
Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz missed out on Q3, the pair around half a second off the pace required to progress to the final segment.
Haas’s Kevin Magnussen was knocked out in P13, ahead of Nico Hülkenberg in his worst qualifying showing so far of the season in P14 thanks to an electrical problem. Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber-Ferrari qualified in P15.
The first segment of qualifying was as big a struggle on the slippery Baku circuit as the preceding three practice sessions, with lock-ups and escapes to the run-off area dominating on-track action.
The almost unique demands of the track, with its long straight but slow turns, put a premium on efficient aerodynamics and horsepower, putting McLaren and Sauber immediately on the back foot.
McLaren’s underpowered Honda engines meant both were likely candidates for elimination, and Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were duly eliminated in sixteenth and nineteenth.
Both take a myriad of grid penalties for power unit changes, however, so both will start at the back of the grid but ahead of Jolyon Palmer, who was unable to set a time.
A fuel fire damaged Palmer’s car in free practice three, leaving his Renault team with too little time to make repairs before the end of Q1.
Romain Grosjean was knocked out in P17 despite teammate Kevin Magnussen progressing to Q2.
The Frenchman, however, has complained about his brakes all weekend, making his exclusion from the rest of the afternoon unsurprising.
Marcus Ericsson was knocked out in P18, his year-old Ferrari engine no match for the 2017 versions powering the rest of the cars — though teammate Pascal Wehrlein sneaked through into the next qualifying session.