Max Verstappen unsurprised by Charles Leclerc pole, ‘always’ strong in Baku

Jamie Woodhouse
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, pulls a funny expression with Charles Leclerc. Bahrain, March 2023.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, pulls a funny expression at Charles Leclerc, Ferrari. Bahrain, March 2023.

Max Verstappen was not shocked to see Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc suddenly emerge from the pack in Baku, his effort good enough for a first pole of the season and third in a row in Baku.

The opening three rounds of F1 2023 had been a story of Red Bull comfortably leading the way, while Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari tussled behind over the right to be called ‘best of the rest’.

More often than not Leclerc has been coming out on the losing end, retiring while running P3 in Bahrain before spinning out after contact with Lance Stroll in Australia, but his start to the race weekend in Baku could not have gone much better.

Leclerc would in fact set an identical opening Q3 time to Verstappen’s as the pair battled over pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but it was Leclerc who found that extra gear to make it three poles in as many seasons at this venue.

So, while it would be understandable if Verstappen were surprised by Leclerc’s sudden statement of intent, considering Red Bull’s early dominance, actually Verstappen had anticipated a strong showing from the Ferrari driver.

Now, with Verstappen P2 on Sunday’s grid, and a Saturday sprint race looming, Verstappen is focusing on “straightforward sessions” in a “good” RB19 to make the most of this race weekend in Azerbaijan.

“It’s not the easiest to go to the limit around this track and it’s also tough to get the tyres in the right window,” Verstappen reflected. “I think we kept it quite clean today and we progressed nicely, overall, we can be pleased.

“Of course, we want to be on pole but it’s about the bigger picture. Charles looks pretty competitive this weekend, he always does in Baku.

“There are a few characteristics of the track that suit Ferrari and there are others that suit us better. There’s no big drama. I was happy with the setup of the car and I’m looking forward to tomorrow, it will be good to see what we can improve on and do better.

“We need to have straightforward sessions tomorrow, it’s super easy to make a mistake around here. We have a good race car and the points are scored tomorrow and on Sunday, so that’s what we’ll focus on.”

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With just the one hour of practice ahead of qualifying, it was certainly a tough test for the drivers to hit the ground running and find a good rhythm around this thrilling street track, efforts which were not helped by Q1 crashes for Nyck de Vries and Pierre Gasly and the subsequent red flag periods.

From there though it was a surprisingly smooth run for F1 standards at this venue, as Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez claimed P3 on Sunday’s grid.

A final deficit of three-tenths to Verstappen was not what he had in mind, but like his team-mate, Perez is reserving his main point of focus for the Grand Prix.

“It was pretty intense from the moment Q1 started, nailing that first lap was critical and it made our Q1 a little more stressful than it should be with all the red flags and making sure we kept on the same tyres,” said Perez.

“My final lap in Q3 wasn’t ideal so with that I am disappointed, but the important thing is to be strong on Sunday.

“I feel a lot more confident in the car this weekend. I am looking forward to tomorrow, getting some more lap times in and getting a cleaner lap in the Sprint Shootout. Charles did a tremendous job this evening.

“This weekend has been challenging already with the new format, we have a change of tarmac here too and we have just come from a three-week break and jumped straight into it. It is really nice to see the level everyone in the team is working at, the engineers and the mechanics.”

Before Leclerc leads the pack away for Sunday’s Grand Prix, there will be another qualifying outing for the drivers on Saturday with a shortened Q1, Q2 and Q3 on the horizon to set the grid for the sprint race later that day.