Leclerc takes pole position in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — Charles Leclerc is back on pole. Now comes the delicate task of converting it into victory.

Leclerc took pole for the fourth race in a row with a stunning lap around the Baku street circuit in Azerbaijan on Saturday, but the Ferrari driver failed to convert any of his last three pole positions into wins.

Leclerc ran one lap at 1 minute, 41.359 seconds with his final run of the session to beat Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez by 0.282 seconds. Formula 1 championship leader Max Verstappen qualified third in the other Red Bull, 0.347 off Leclerc’s pace.

Leclerc has finished first or second in every qualifying session this year but hasn’t won a race since the Australian Grand Prix in April. Verstappen has won three races in a row and Pérez won in Monaco two weeks ago.

“All pole positions feel good but this one I probably didn’t expect,” said Leclerc. He said the Red Bull cars seemed faster “but then on the last lap it all fell into place.”

Leclerc has started from pole in the last three races but was passed by Verstappen in Miami, retired with car trouble in Spain – where defending champion Verstappen won to overtake Leclerc for the top spot – ​and dropped to fourth place in its home race at Monaco after a botched strategy call by Ferrari. He was also in pole position in Azerbaijan last year, when he finished fourth.

Pérez was a winner in Azerbaijan last year and is fresh off his victory at the Monaco Grand Prix. He was optimistic about his chances in Sunday’s race but admitted he got lucky in qualifying after hitting the wall.

“I hit it pretty hard a few times but it seems to be very strong, the car, this year,” he said. “I was lucky not to fall because I was a bit over the limit and trying too hard.”

Pérez argued he could have been quicker had it not been for a problem getting his car started in the pits for the final qualifying round which left him alone on the track with no car to follow on the straight.

Verstappen, who leads Leclerc by nine points in the standings, felt his car was “still a bit off” in terms of setup balance.

“We seem to be missing maybe a little bit on one lap, but I think in the long run our car should be pretty good,” he said. Like Leclerc, Verstappen never made it to the podium in Baku and fell off the lead last year when a tire burst.

Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz qualified fourth, while Mercedes’ George Russell was fifth and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton seventh. AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly finished sixth.

Stewards summoned McLaren’s Hamilton and Lando Norris for “unnecessarily slow driving” in the second of three qualifying sessions. Dashcam footage from Norris showed Hamilton driving slowly through the narrow Old Town section of the track and Norris then slowing down to match him.

Hamilton said he acted within the rules and was trying to let other cars pass to get a slipstream and make up for Mercedes’ lack of pace on the straights. The stewards took no action, judging that Hamilton’s actions were not dangerous and that his overall lap time was quite fast.

Norris narrowly missed the cut in the second session and qualified 11th, one place ahead of beleaguered McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Lance Stroll finished 19th after crashing twice in the first session. The Canadian was able to get going after hitting a barrier during late braking, but hit the wall again on his very next lap, breaking the front wing and leaving a wheel hanging.

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