Could Charles Leclerc have taken pole position had he not crashed in qualifying at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix? Could the Ferrari driver still take an unlikely maiden victory on Sunday?
The answer to the first question will never be known. But the second will be answered on Sunday, and, unlikely as the prospect may seem from ninth on the grid, it cannot be ruled out completely.
In a normal race, on a normal track, ninth would be too far back for anyone to entertain a victory. But Baku is very far from a normal track, and it tends not to host conventional types of races either.
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‘I threw all the potential in the bin’
Leclerc’s despair as he climbed out of his crumpled Ferrari having smacked it into the barriers at Turn Eight midway through second qualifying was plain to see – and completely understandable.
The 21-year-old had looked ‘the man’ all weekend. Quicker than Vettel in first practice, as they were the only two drivers to set times before it was cancelled after George Russell’s Williams was destroyed by a loose manhole cover. Quickest in second practice on Friday. And again in final practice on Saturday morning.
He started qualifying 0.6secs quicker than Vettel in the first session, albeit pipped to fastest time by Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly, who ran later. Then, in the second session, he was again quicker than Vettel as Ferrari made the questionable decision to send their cars out on the slower medium tyres rather than the faster softs, in an attempt to start the race on them.
The lack of grip from the tyres in the dropping temperatures may well have contributed to Leclerc’s accident – not that that is an excuse.
As he put it: “I am very disappointed in myself. I have been very strong all weekend. It is a mistake I shouldn’t have done. I believe we had the potential for pole and I threw it all away.
“Very sad for what happened, but I deserve it. I’ve been stupid, as I said on the radio. I’ve calmed down but I still think I’ve been stupid – this doesn’t change. I will push to learn from this and come back stronger and hopefully have a very good race tomorrow.
“I don’t want to say anything stupid, but looking at FP1, FP2, FP3 and ‘qually’ one, pole was possible today and I threw all the potential in the bin.”
A potential shift in the Ferrari dynamic
Leclerc will know that there is more at stake here than a lost pole position. He came into the weekend expressing his determination to prove to Ferrari by his performances that they should end their policy of employing team orders to favour Vettel, which they have done in all three races so far.
He was doing exactly that until the moment he hit the wall – which was a demonstration of exactly why Ferrari have gone for this policy in the first place.
They know Leclerc is extravagantly talented and may end up quicker than Vettel. But they also know that he is young, inexperienced and likely to make mistakes, so they believe Vettel is the driver more likely to challenge the Mercedes drivers over a season.
And now Leclerc, on a weekend when he could have forced a re-think, has gone and given them the perfect excuse to carry it on. Despite declaring himself “stupid” on the radio immediately after the crash, he is anything but, and will be well aware of the wider implications of his misjudgement.
Hamlet contemplated “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, and in Baku on Saturday Leclerc had a glimpse of it.
Not long before he had his smash, Vettel had hit the inside wall at the same corner. But while Williams driver Robert Kubica did that and ended up in the same barrier as Leclerc, Vettel got away with it, and could carry on with qualifying.
Gamesmanship at Mercedes
All may not be lost for Leclerc, however.
“For now, for the next three or four hours, I’ll just be beating myself up,” he said. But he was still talking about potentially winning the race, even if he admitted: “It is not going to be easy.”
Leclerc will consider that Lance Stroll ended up on the podium in Baku in 2017 in a Williams, when Daniel Ricciardo won for Red Bull – having qualified 10th – having dropped to 17th place at one point.
After a soporific debut on the F1 calendar in 2016, this race has tended to be chaotic and incident-strewn. If Leclerc can make quick progress, he could easily end up in the lead battle if there is a safety car, as most would expect there to be.
But if he manages it, there is the small matter of two Mercedes to deal with, and their formidable form continues.
They had looked on the back foot for much of practice but, as happens so often, come qualifying they were right there and they locked out the front row after Ferrari’s less-than-smooth qualifying.
After Leclerc’s crash, Mercedes even played a little trick on Ferrari, by sending their two cars out for their final run a little early, expecting Vettel to follow them. Ferrari took the bait, only for the Mercedes drivers to stop at the end of the pit lane and pretend to do practice starts, forcing Vettel to past them. Which left him without the benefit of a tow for his lap.
This led to an amusing exchange in the news conference, when Vettel said: “Your fake starts in Q3. Did you do a start or did you just stop?”
Hamilton replied: “We just dummied you basically!”
Which raises the question – was the Mercedes actually the quicker car, or did they get pole as a result of Leclerc’s crash and Vettel’s compromised session? As Hamilton said, a tow can be worth as much as half a second.
On Sunday, Ferrari have a chance to put things right, as they would see it, and take a much-needed first win of 2019.
Vettel talked about putting the Mercedes under pressure, although he himself will have Verstappen breathing down his neck. And Bottas said: “Here is a very unpredictable race. Obviously we are pretty happy we are starting with a one-two as a team. We feel we do have a strong car in the race but here, anything can happen. It’s a very eventful race.
“Who’s tyres are going to last the best, who’s going to have the best pace. Also, with safety cars, how everything pans out. You can get lucky or unlucky.”
Starting from ninth, Leclerc will have the silver cars rear wings in his sights. As Bottas said: “Many unpredictable things can happen.”