Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc was the favorite to take pole position at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix right up until he smacked into the barriers.
Leclerc has always performed strongly at Baku. The Monegasque scored his first Formula 1 points last season in Azerbaijan and tasted victory in 2017 in Formula 2, and after clean sweeping practice for this year’s event and comfortably having the measure of teammate Sebastian Vettel, the 21-year-old looked destined to claim his second career pole.
But the promise came undone halfway through Q2 at the narrow Turn 8, the bottom of the hill that runs up alongside the castle. Leclerc locked up when he hit the brakes, but rather than carry on straight into the run-off area, he committed to the corner and as a result hurtled headlong into the barrier.
“I am stupid. I am stupid,” he said, berating himself over team radio as his engineer asked if was OK. The frustration was evident even before he pulled himself from the wreckage, and he whacked his halo on the way out for good measure.
Leclerc has developed a reputation for critical reflection, and though he had calmed by the time he returned to the paddock, he was no less disappointed in himself for the mistake.
“I deserved what happened today,” he told British TV. “I am very, very sad for what happened, but I deserve it.
“I’ve been stupid. I’ve calmed down, but I still think I’ve been stupid.”
Most painful for Leclerc was that he believed — as much of the paddock did — that he was firmly on course to deliver pole position before the crash.
“I don’t want to say anything stupid, but I think after looking at FP1, FP2, FP3, quali one, pole was possible today, and I threw all the potential in the bin.”
Leclerc will line up ninth on the grid — he ended the session 10th but will earn a place back after Antonio Giovinazzi takes his 10-place grid penalty from eighth place — and said he was optimistic he could still execute a strong race on Sunday, although only once he finished haranguing himself for his mistake.
“I will push to learn from this and come back stronger and hopefully have a very good race tomorrow,” he said. “You can definitely overtake, and I will push hard. But for the next three or four hours I’ll just be beating myself up.”
Speaking after qualifying third behind the Mercedes front-row lockout, Sebastian Vettel said he understood the pain his Ferrari teammate was experiencing and expected him to bounce back on Sunday.
“It’s normal,” said the German. “If you do a mistake, you’re not happy about it. Being critical is the reason why he is here, why we’re here. I don’t think anybody enjoys that part of our racing life, but every now and then it is part of it.
“The weekend isn’t over yet. We have a good car and I’m sure we can recover as a team tomorrow.