Lewis Hamilton produced a breathtaking lap to qualify in pole for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix with team-mate Valterri Bottas starting alongside him on the front row.
The pendulum in the championship fight has swung back towards Hamilton after a strong performance in qualifying, while mechanical problems meant Vettel could only salvage a fourth-place start in Baku.
Raikkonen, who qualified ahead of Vettel in third, was more than a second off Hamilton’s pace in ominous signs for the Scuderia.
Red Bull actually looked most likely to challenge Mercedes in qualifying but a gear shift problem pushed Verstappen down to fifth and Ricciardo could not see out Q3 after hitting the wall on the exit of Turn 6.
The Force India’s again turned in a strong qualifying session in signs of their continued improvement to start in sixth and seventh ahead of both Williams cars.
Hamilton Delivers Under Pressure
Mercedes struggled through the practice sessions but stepped up a level during qualifying to have Hamilton comfortably fastest in Q1 and Q2.
But the first hot lap in Q3 didn’t go as planned with the Englishman running wide on Turn 16 to leave him second fastest behind Bottas but easily ahead of Verstappen and the Ferrari’s.
It all changed deep into the session when Ricciardo slide his Red Bull into the barrier on the exit of Turn 6. The damage forced out a red flag and the session was halted for nine minutes.
With just enough time for one final hot lap the pressure was squarely on Hamilton. Bottas led out the Mercedes cars and improved his time to 1:41.027 but it was Hamilton that found an extra gear with a stunning lap of 1:40.593.
“That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year and a lot of pressure,’ said Hamilton.
“The first lap I easily had the time but I made a mistake in the last corner. It was all or nothing but the lap just got better and better throughout.”
“I saw Valtteri ahead and knew he was doing a good lap. I was like, ‘please be enough’. I am ecstatic.”
“I am so pumped with that. That’s how qualifying should be. It is going to be a long, hard race but we are in the best position to start.”
Ferrari Face Tough Task
It was surely a day to forget for Vettel who managed to limit the gap to Hamilton following mechanical problems.
Vettel was out for most of final practice because of a hydraulics issue and the Ferrari pit crew had to do a late engine change before qualifying.
They fitted an old-specification engine, the first one he used this season, which has less power than the newer engines. It meant that Vettel never really had a chance of getting close to Mercedes but the huge 1.2 second gap to Hamilton was larger than most anticipated.
“We were not quick enough,” said Vettel. “The gap to Mercedes in front was bigger than anyone expected.”
Vettel now faces the daunting task of trying to get past team-mate Raikkonen and Bottas before mounting a challenge on Hamilton, with Mercedes likely to run dual strategies to hold up the Ferrari’s.
Good Qualifying For Force India And Williams
Force India again delivered during qualifying to land Perez in sixth and Ocon in seventh on a track that plays to their strengths.
It is the highest qualifying position for Ocon and the Force India team will be aiming to consolidate their position in the constructor’s title above Williams.
Deputy Team Principal Robert Fernley said: “Another excellent team performance, which sets us up nicely for a strong race tomorrow.”
“Whatever happens we will react quickly to optimize the strategy and hopefully bring home a bunch of points.”
Despite being behind the Force India’s, Lance Stroll comes away having out-qualified Williams team-mate Massa for the first time in a confidence boosting performance.
“Today I’m just really happy with the result. Obviously the race is tomorrow, that’s when we have to score points, but very happy with today,” said the young Canadian.