Max Verstappen came out on top in a competitive battle for P1 in first practice, with Ferrari and McLaren also putting themselves in the mix.
The World Championship leader posted a 1:43.184 to pip Charles Leclerc to top spot in a tricky opening session with traffic and a slippery surface cause one or two minor headaches.
Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez and Daniel Ricciardo rounded off the top five, who were all separated by just half a second. Mercedes’ initial response after a poor weekend in Monaco was a quite one; Lewis Hamilton down in P7 and Valtteri Bottas two spots further back in P9.
While the storm clouds were potentially brewing over the Mercedes and Red Bull garages, track conditions were set pretty fair in Baku as the majority of drivers reacquainted themselves with this circuit after a two-year absence.
There was a slight breeze to contend with as the first session got underway and also a slippy track, too, with the circuit still very much needing to be rubbered in.
After the opening 20 minutes of the FP1, it was Hamilton who was setting the early pace with a 1:45.112 on the soft compound, opening up a half-a-second gap to the likes of Norris, Leclerc and Sainz.
Hamilton would then up the ante shortly after as he chopped 1.2 seconds off his previous best to bring the benchmark down to 1:43.893.
Verstappen’s initial response saw him close the gap to 0.968s but he found significant improvement on his next run to narrow the deficit to a couple of tenths…and this was with the medium tyres strapped on.
Elsewhere, Yuki Tsunoda was the first to provide us with a Austin Power moments at Turn 4 as he had a hard time completing a full turn around in the narrow escape road.
— Planet F1 (@Planet_F1) June 4, 2021
F1 TV are offering PlanetF1 readers 10% off their Access and Pro subscriptions! Click here and use the code PLANETF10 at checkout*
*offer expires midnight on Sunday, June 6
Back at the top of the timesheet, things were seriously hotting up as Norris, Leclerc and Ricciardo all had a good crack at knocking Hamilton off top spot. The latter actually succeeded, to the surprise of many given his troubles in the McLaren so far this season, overcoming traffic to shave 0.161 seconds off Hamilton’s best.
Norris was on course to make Ricciardo’s joy short-lived, but a costly spin at Turn 16 dashed hopes of him bagging the P1 spot.
Hamilton’s reply was also short-lived as he locked up at Turn 15 and went down the escape road after going quickest of anyone through the first sector.
Then, it was suddenly Ferrari’s turn to show their early pace and, with 15 minutes left in the session, it was a Scuderia 1-2 with Leclerc leading team-mate Sainz, 0.294s separating the two as the former pumped in a 1:43.227.
All eyes were on then back on Verstappen as he had the red-striped soft tyres on, albeit not for long as Nikita Mazepin held him up and completely ruined his lap.
“Unbelievable,” Verstappen said on team radio. “He just sits in front of me, I was weaving and everything.”
The Dutchman had a quieter time of it on his second attempt and it resulted in a rise from P6 to P1 by a mere 0.043 seconds.
That time would remain unbeaten as there was quite scruffy end to the session, with Sainz and Schumacher forced down the escape roads and Mazepin brushing the wall at Turn 1.
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1:43.184 19
2 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 0.043s 20
3 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 0.337s 20
4 Sergio Perez Red Bull 0.446s 17
5 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 0.548s 25
6 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 0.573s 23
7 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.709s 20
8 Lando Norris McLaren 0.812s 20
9 Fernando Alonso Alpine 1.593s 25
10 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1.707s 20
11 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Racing 1.759s 18
12 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 2.050s 23
13 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 2.200s 25
14 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 2.231s 24
15 Esteban Ocon Alpine 2.262s 23
16 George Russell Williams 2.268s 24
17 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Racing 1.908s 20
18 Nicholas Latifi Williams 2.590s 22
19 Mick Schumacher Haas 3.715s 20
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas 3.761s 18