Lewis Hamilton took pole position from Valtteri Bottas with a brilliant last-gasp drive for a Mercedes 1-2 followed by Ferrari on the Azerbaijan Grand Prix grid.
Bottas led qualifying and then set an even quicker time on his final lap, only for Hamilton to beat him by nearly half a second.
“There was a lot of pressure with a minute left. It was all or nothing,” Hamilton said. “That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year. I’m so pumped, that’s how qualifying should be.”
The British driver’s 66th pole moved him one ahead of Formula One great Ayrton Senna and just two behind Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68.
“I thought the hunger might drop off after I matched him [Senna],” Hamilton said. “But I was hungrier than ever today.”
Kimi Raikkonen was more than one second behind Hamilton, qualifying third ahead of his Ferrari team-mate Sebastian Vettel, the championship leader.
After his impressive pole at the Canadian GP two weeks ago, it was another commanding performance by Hamilton as he took his fifth pole in eight races this season.
“My last lap in Montreal was pretty special but I think this one topped it,” the three-time F1 champion said.
After three difficult practice sessions, qualifying also proved tough. There were close calls for Bottas and Vettel while Force India’s Sergio Perez shaved the barriers on the demanding street circuit. With three minutes remaining a red flag came up, halting the session, after Daniel Ricciardo clipped a wall with the left side of his Red Bull, prompting an expletive from the Australian driver.
It is only the second time for drivers in Baku, and the tight corners are made even harder by the wider cars this year. “You’ve got so little margin for error,” Ricciardo said. “Every corner can be a challenge.”
Ricciardo’s team-mate, Max Verstappen, qualified fifth followed by Perez. But it was disappointing for the 19-year-old Verstappen, who topped both of Friday’s practices.
Bottas, meanwhile, was disappointed not to secure his second career pole.
“I wasn’t quite comfortable with the tyre temperature,” said Bottas, who took pole in Bahrain in April. “Just didn’t get them to work as well as Lewis.”
“Yesterday we were at a bit of a loss and we had to make a lot of changes overnight,” said Hamilton, who was tenth in P2. “This morning, we didn’t know if those changes were going to be right or not. But the guys did excellent work.”
Hamilton is 12 points behind Vettel and will be confident of closing that gap today.
At the other end of the F1 spectrum, the misery continues for struggling McLaren as Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were eliminated from the first part of qualifying. So were Romain Grosjean (Haas), Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) and Jolyon Palmer (Renault).
Hamilton topped Q1 ahead of Verstappen and Raikkonen. Williams driver Felipe Massa misjudged the difficult approach into turn eight and Carlos Sainz Jr. overshot the entry into turn two, which happened to several drivers over the two days.
Hamilton topped Q2 ahead of Bottas and Vettel. In Q3, Bottas went close to clipping the wall on Turn 8, and Vettel took an exit road and spun after a braking error.
Earlier, in an eventful P3, Bottas was fastest.
On both days, drivers were severely tested on the track, which is volatile and unpredictable due to a combination of long straights, blistering track temperatures, and hard-braking corners.
Just seven minutes into P3, Renault’s Jolyon Palmer’s engine caught fire, forcing him to go off the track and ruling him out of qualifying.