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Leclerc on pole for Azerbaijan after crashes halt qualifying

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Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco, right, is congratulated by Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands after taking pole position during the qualifying session at the Baku Formula One city circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, Saturday, June 5, 2021. The Azerbaijan Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (Maxim Shemetov, Pool via AP)

BAKU – Charles Leclerc won his second consecutive pole position, again under the red flag because a crash stopped qualifying, to earn the top starting spot for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Leclerc set a time of 1 minute, 41.218 seconds early in Saturday's third session. Championship leader Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were just starting their late flying laps when Yuki Tsunoda hit the wall and then Leclerc's teammate Carlos Sainz crashed right behind Tsunoda.

It brought an immediate end to the session and put Leclerc on pole for the second consecutive grand prix.

It was Leclerc who crashed his Ferrari to end qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix two weeks ago, and even though he retained his starting position at his home track, repairs to his car were not completed in time and he did not race.

“It feels good, it feels better than Monaco, though it still doesn't feel as good as a pole position should feel, just because of the red flag," Leclerc said. “We definitely did not expect this type of performance so it's looking good for the future.”

Leclerc arrived in Baku expecting to fight McLaren or be “even a little behind” rather than a challenger to title contenders Hamilton and Verstappen. He's sixth in the standings and already 65 points behind leader Verstappen after his bizarre Monaco weekend.

But for the second consecutive race, Verstappen and Hamilton didn't get a chance to challenge Leclerc. Tsunoda's crash brought out the fourth red flag of the qualifying session and stopped their charge.

“To be honest, we didn’t expect to be as competitive as were this weekend until now," Leclerc said.

Hamilton was .232 off the pace in second — a rebound after Mercedes had struggled to match Red Bull and Ferrari in practice. Verstappen took third, .113 back. Both could only speculate if they could have taken the pole from Leclerc.

“I can’t say that I would definitely have been quicker than Charles, but there was definitely time left on the table," Hamilton said.

Verstappen called the session “stupid qualifying” and rued his lack of a slipstream on the long straight.

Red Bull and Mercedes have spent the week bickering over what Hamilton has called Red Bull’s “bendy” rear wing — it flexes at speed to reduce drag — and then Red Bull accused Mercedes of having its own questionable front wing.

Ferrari sidestepped the debate entirely and won the pole.

Mercedes' lack of pace Friday had sparked speculation that even reaching the final qualifying shootout would be a challenge. In the end, Hamilton was shocked at how much his car had improved, but teammate Valtteri Bottas only qualified 10th. The Finn has less than half of Hamilton’s points after five races and has yet to beat Hamilton this season.

“We definitely weren’t expecting that because we’ve been struggling all weekend. You can definitely see it. We continue to have difficult discussions in the background and challenging one another and just never taking no for an answer,” Hamilton said of the turnaround.

"We’ve moved around and made so many changes over these two days, just chasing your tail has been so difficult. We really worked overnight and between the sessions and I’m really proud of everyone for keeping positive and to be up there and to be so close to these guys is a great start.”

Pierre Gasly of Red Bull's sister team AlphaTauri was a surprise fourth, two thousandths of a second behind Verstappen. No such luck for Verstappen's teammate Sergio Pérez. The Mexican driver was fastest across the three practice sessions and was expected to challenge for pole but instead was a disappointing seventh.

Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi both went off at the same corner in the first qualifying session before setting a time, and Daniel Ricciardo crashed in the second session. The Australian is in his first season with McLaren but has finished behind teammate Lando Norris in four of five races so far this year.

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