There was a moment in the final part of qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix when both Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen set identical times; 1:40.445s. It’s an impressive feat around the 3.7-mile circuit and set the tone for what would be a close shootout for Pole Position between the pair. Verstappen appeared to have the measure of the Ferrari driver in the morning practice session, but Leclerc’s previous history at the Baku City Circuit made him a contender despite Ferrari’s recent qualifying form. Ferrari hasn’t started from pole since the 2022 United States Grand Prix, which was earned by Carlos Sainz, so the pressure was on to deliver. During the final runs of Q3 Leclerc produced a promising first couple of sectors, extending the previous gap by 0.242s. This turned out to be enough, as Verstappen managed to improve but was still 0.188s off at the line. Where does Leclerc make up the lap time? The main areas where Leclerc managed to beat Verstappen was towards the end of the first sector and through the middle sector. Ferrari’s drag deficit with the SF-23 meant that the RB19 dominated on the main start/finish straight at the beginning of the lap. It also excels in the first couple of traction zones (exits of Turns 1 & 2), with Verstappen ahead for much of this sector. It gets interesting when they reach Turn 4, where the circuit starts to enter the medium-speed corners. Leclerc was deeper on the brakes into this corner, which enabled him to carry more momentum and power ahead up to the entry to Turn 7. Verstappen briefly takes the advantage from this point, but only until Turn 11 where Leclerc gets better traction exiting the tightest corner on the calendar. The Red Bull driver reported that “didn’t have the grip” towards the end of the lap over team radio, which is where Leclerc starts to gain the most on him. Leclerc gains time in the middle sector The pace of the SF-23 through the sweeping left handers between Turns 12 and 15 put Leclerc ahead of Verstappen, showing similar pace as they did at the high-speed sections around the Bahrain International Circuit . This is repeated through Turns 19 and 20 as Leclerc gains time on Verstappen, who was briefly ahead exiting Turn 16. It’s no surprise that Ferrari managed to produce faster sector times here given their focus on engine performance, despite the technical issues that led to Leclerc taking an unprecedented 10-place grid drop at the second round in Saudi Arabia. Ultimately it was Red Bull’s overall package enables Verstappen to gain time back on Leclerc as they cross the start/finish straight, but it was not enough for Dutchman to seal his first pole at the track. While Ferrari also has the advantage of the newly-laid surface and a tyre warm up experiment that went wrong for Verstappen , it is encouraging signs for Ferrari that Leclerc was able to spend 63% of the lap at full-throttle – 1.6% more than the Red Bull. The 1:40.203 beat the previous track record of a 1:40.495 set by Valtteri Bottas in the Mercedes in 2019.

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