Entering the qualifying session of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, it would have looked unrealistic to predict the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton would be fighting for pole, and would start the race from the first row of the grid. Even more unrealistic, was predicting him to qualify ahead of both the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez, as the latter looked particularly strong throughout the weekend.
Since Friday, the seven-times world champion seemed to be struggling with the setup of a W12 that looked nowhere near their usual level of performance. His best result was a seventh place in the first practice session, but he dropped outside the top ten in the second session of practice. From his own admission, despite driving well, he had no idea as to why they were being this slow.
Saturday morning looked no better, as the tow from Perez which positioned him in third place wasn’t enough to hide the disarray Mercedes were facing with the car set up.
It then came as a surprise to see him topping the first session of the qualifying, and also fighting for the pole position until the crash of Yuki Tsunoda and Carlos Sainz stopped all the contenders to go for an ultimate flying lap around Baku.
In the end, Hamilton’s first attempt was good enough to secure the second slot on the grid, behind the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, but crucially ahead of the Red Bull of his most direct championship rival Max Verstappen.
When exiting his car, Hamilton sounding a bit in disbelief, praised the efforts of both himself and his team that led to an unexpectedly good result.
"I think we definitely weren't expecting that," he said. "This is such a monumental result for us, because we've been struggling like you couldn't believe it all weekend.”
"You can see it, but we kept our composure, continued to have difficult discussions in the background, kept challenging one another and just never taking no for an answer.”
"We've moved around and made so many changes over these two days, which is chasing your tail. It's been so difficult, but I think the work overnight and then typically between the sessions was amazing.”
"I'm really proud of everyone for keeping positive. And to be up there and so close to these guys is a great result."
The Briton highlighted how critical it was to get the tyres to work optimally, while also understanding the car better.
"It's just crazy trying to get these tyres working and trying to find the envelope for this car,"
"It is the biggest challenge I think we've had in a long time, to understand where the car is.”
In the end, Hamilton asserted how great it was to have both his car and the one of his teammate Valtteri Bottas in these positions, considering how much struggles the team collectively had to overcome.
"She has not been happy all weekend. It's been a bit of a disaster, so for us to be up here, and even Valtteri [Bottas] getting into the top ten, that's a massive leap and that's really down to great, great teamwork."
Anticipating what the race’s stakes might be, the Stevenage born sounded a bit optimistic, as the W12 looked much stronger in race trim than in qualifying trim.
"Our race pace was a lot better than the single lap pace," he said.
"We were miles off in a single lap and a lot closer in race pace. We don't understand why, but I like to think, hopefully, we are in that same position, so we can take that fight to these guys [Red Bull and Ferrari] tomorrow."
In the post-session press conference, Hamilton clarified that the huge improvement didn’t come from an overnight work, but rather between FP3 and qualifying, as the car was “still a disaster” in third practice.
“It was really just about getting the tyres to work. We couldn’t get the tyres to switch on like the others can. The ‘night and day’ difference was feeling the tyres working.”
When Asked how Mercedes had cracked the downforce balance needed, Hamilton described the process of tweaking the car’s setup he and his team of engineers went through, and the stress it created when they weren’t getting the expected results.
“It’s really kind of hard to explain the emotions that I’ve gone through for the past day.”
“And when we’re talking about the set-up changes it’s difficult for us to understand why we’re in the position we’re in, because we’re trying lots of different things and we don’t always get the results that you’re expecting to get.”
“No matter what we’re doing we couldn’t really fix it. So from my point of view, I’m pushing the guys like ‘I want to try this, I want to try that.”
“And then when you do that, I had a lot of anxiety because I don’t know if you’re going to get it right, or get it wrong and it means that you’re out of the top 10 like we were earlier this morning and then yesterday.”
“You just have to let it go. We were here last night till 11 o’clock and again for the session 10 minutes just before we’re still making small changes and we just have to shake it off and go for it.”
Ultimately, the 36-year-old can be satisfied with how they finally reached the balance that allowed them to secure a place on a grid from which they can fight for a solid result in the race.
“It’s an amazing feeling. I think we’ve got the right balance. Do we have the perfect wing? I’m sure you could always say you could have a slightly better balance, but it did the job today.”