Nico Rosberg turned in a dominating qualifying performance to take pole in Baku while Hamilton struggled throughout and will start from tenth.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo will start alongside Rosberg on the front row. Force India’s Sergio Perez finished qualifying in second but will be penalised five places for changing his gear box after FP3.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel delivered an identical time to Ricciardo but will start in fourth place – because he completed the lap after Ricciardo – and in front of Kimi Raikkonen, the Williams driver of Felipe Massa and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat.
The Contest That Didn’t Happen
Lewis Hamilton was at ease on the street circuit around Baku during practise landing the fastest times in each session.
And many would have expected that strong form to continue into qualifying and a tight contest with team-mate Rosberg.
But the reigning world champion “just wasn’t on it” making a series of uncharacteristic mistakes during qualifying and never really landing a knock-out lap.
In Q1, Hamilton over-braked at Turn 15 and finished 0.6 seconds behind Rosberg. The Englishman’s troubles continued in Q2 when he had to back-off on his first lap to avoid Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India that spun off at Turn 16. On Hamilton’s next quick run, a locked-up at Turn 7 flat-spotted the tyres and meant that he had to do his final fast lap on damaged tyres – finishing a full second behind Rosberg.
Hamilton again had a difficult Q3 with another lock-up on Turn 15. On the next hot lap he crashed into Turn 11 with his front-right wheel while negotiating the tight corners around the medieval area of the city. It ended his qualifying session in tenth and brought out a red flag with two minutes remaining.
“I had a fantastic rhythm yesterday, and zero today,” Hamilton commented afterwards.
“Sometimes it happens. It was a rough session, one of those you just don’t need.”
“The car was good. It was me – I just wasn’t on it. I wasn’t hitting apexes; wasn’t hitting the right braking zones.”
The result leaves Hamilton to battle it out from the middle of the pack on the narrow Baku circuit.
“I highly doubt I can win the race; my job is just to try and get through the big tangle of cars I have in front of me,” Hamilton added.
Crucial Two Minutes
The red flag from Hamilton’s crash proved critical for the remaining drivers in Q3.
While Rosberg was comfortable with his lap of 1:42.758 and stayed in the pits after the re-start, the others scrambled to turn in another hot lap and push themselves up the starting grid.
A determined Daniel Ricciardo got to the pit re-start line first and produced a quick 1:43.966 to finish third. Behind him, no-one could improve their times except Verstappen who delivered a 1:45.570 to end in ninth in front of Hamilton.
Perez will take a huge amount confidence going into the race on Sunday, but he later admitted to still being frustrated by the mistake that forced a gear box change and led to his drop from second to seventh.
“Obviously I’m a still a bit angry, but very happy – I think it’s a mix of feelings today!” Perez reflected.
“I think the lap that we put together in Q3 was very, very strong.”
“After a crash you obviously lose some confidence. To get it back, to get in the rhythm again was great. I think the team deserves more, and hopefully tomorrow we can put together a strong race.”
And all the ingredients are there for an exciting race with qualifying showing that almost any driver can win provided they can avoid the cars around them and the walls on the narrow street circuit.
Rosberg will start from the front and look to bring some momentum back to his campaign. Next to him, a fast Ricciardo will want to finally land his maiden win of the season. No-one can rule out the fast Ferrari’s or Perez who has shown he can deliver in Baku. And can anyone doubt Hamilton’s ability to fight back?
The race will start at 17:00 and run over 51 laps.