Here was Hamilton’s chance to really turn the screw, to hammer home the impression that all the momentum in the title race had taken a decisive shift. Instead his mistakes meant Rosberg, under pressure after Montreal and Monaco and under the cosh all weekend in Baku, could enjoy an easy passage to pole position.
Even after his mistakes in Q2, the situation was still retrievable for Lewis. On his first flying lap in the shoot-out he was three tenths up on Rosberg in the first sector before locking up and running off track. By the time he hit the wall, the crash felt inevitable.
The situation might still be retrievable, of course. “If ever there was a circuit built for Mercedes it’s this one,” remarked Christian Horner, the Red Bull boss. And there will be many in the paddock endorsing Rosberg’s expectation that Hamilton ought to fight his way through to second place from tenth. If that charge happens to coincide with a race-resetting safety car deployment, anything will be possible.
But the clear and present danger for Hamilton is that he will be starting the race in the danger zone of the midfield. Just look at the carnage which ensued at the start of Saturday morning’s GP2 race to appreciate how hazardous the opening seconds of Sunday’s race might be.
The cost of Hamilton’s qualifying meltdown may not have been fully paid yet.
Baku gives – and cruelly takes – for Sergio Perez
He isn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last, F1 driver to lose an impressive grid slot through a penalty, but how could you not feel sorry for Sergio Perez after producing the star performance of Baku’s opening qualifying hour?
The final practice crash which broke his gearbox and triggered the five-place demotion was the Mexican’s fault, but the impressive thing was that he didn’t let that setback dent the confidence which had seen him pushing so hard for an eye-catching time at the end of P3 in the first place.
Fourth place had been as good as it had ever got for Perez on an F1 Saturday in five years, so qualifying’s second-fastest time was a career landmark. It wasn’t a fluke either as, while the three-part session produced numerous incidents and caution flags, the Mexican was Mercedes’ closest challenger all the way through.
Given the world champions were a league above everyone else, no wonder Perez said it “feels like pole”. Seventh place might not feel quite like that when he lines up from there on Sunday, but he can rightly believe “tomorrow we can aim for a very strong position”. Turn 15 aberration aside, his performance so far this weekend deserves just that.
Baku has a sharp bite
The racing certainty for Sunday’s race is that the collective repair bill for the teams will be steep. Even with three of the six sessions so far being classified as practice events, over half the field have already either crashed or taken avoiding action out at Turns Three, Four or Fifteen. Baku has bite.
Containing one of the slowest sections of track ever seen in F1 along with the longest straight currently in the sport, it also has a split-personality – which may explain why the field have endured such a collective struggle to master the newcomer. Around a circuit of such polar opposites, the perfect set-up may not be possible. And Baku also has a second double-whammy to contend with: not only is it very challenging but, courtesy of the omnipresent barriers and dearth of run-off areas, it’s also very punishing.
Anyone flying home on Sunday with a good result will have earned his reward.
Ricciardo is becoming a qualifying master
No wonder the smile is back.
After Ricciardo 4 Kvyat 0 at the start of 2016, the latest Saturday scoreline at Red Bull currently reads Ricciardo 4 Verstappen 0.
The Australian’s last qualifying defeat to a team-mate occurred ten races ago in Brazil last November.
‘Becoming’ a qualifying master? He might already be one.
Kvyat times it just right
For the first time this year, Daniil Kvyat has out-qualified a team-mate. And the Russian did it in style, beating Carlos Sainz into Q3 before claiming sixth on the grid.
Nor could Daniil’s revival be better timed. Christian Horner – perhaps revealing more than he should – told Sky F1 prior to qualifying that confirmation Toro Rosso will retain Sainz is “just days away”.
Following Daniel Ricciardo’s contract extension with the parent outfit, the Red Bull group clearly have driver line-ups on their mind. While Toro Rosso sound in no mood to go through more driver upheaval, not least perhaps because of the suspicion that Pierre Gasly isn’t yet ready for F1, Kvyat’s season-first Saturday win may have just sealed his deal too.
2. Sergio Perez MEX Force India-Mercedes 1m 43.515s*
3. Daniel Ricciardo AUS Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m 43.966s
4. Sebastian Vettel GER Ferrari-Ferrari 1m 43.966s
5. Kimi Raikkonen FIN Ferrari-Ferrari 1m 44.269s
6. Felipe Massa BRZ Williams-Mercedes 1m 44.483s
7. Daniil Kvyat RUS Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m 44.717s
8. Valtteri Bottas FIN Williams-Mercedes 1m 45.246s
9. Max Verstappen NED Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m 45.570s
10. Lewis Hamilton GBR Mercedes-Mercedes 2m 01.954s11. Romain Grosjean FRA Haas-Ferrari 1m 44.755s
12. Nico Hulkenberg GER Force India-Mercedes 1m 44.824s
13. Carlos Sainz Jr ESP Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m 45.000s
14. Fernando Alonso ESP McLaren-Honda 1m 45.270s
15. Esteban Gutierrez MEX Haas-Ferrari 1m 45.349s
16. Felipe Nasr BRZ Sauber-Ferrari 1m 46.048s
17. Rio Haryanto INA MRT-Mercedes 1m 45.665s
18. Pascal Wehrlein GER MRT-Mercedes 1m 45.750s
19. Jenson Button GBR McLaren-Honda 1m 45.804s
20. Marcus Ericsson SWE Sauber-Ferrari 1m 46.231s
21. Kevin Magnussen DEN Renault-Renault 1m 46.348s
22. Jolyon Palmer GBR Renault-Renault 1m 46.394s