“Woop!” he cried. “What an effort, what an effort guys, what an effort!”
As Hamilton parked his Mercedes W12 car behind the P2 board, there was a surprising sense of relief for the seven-time world champion. He may not have added to his tally of 100 pole positions, but he had turned around what looked set to be a damaging weekend for Mercedes.
After the struggles of Monaco, Hamilton saw little sign of his fortunes turning around on Friday in Baku. A difficult FP2 saw him finish the day 11th-fastest, more than a second behind pace-setter Sergio Perez of Red Bull. Teammate Valtteri Bottas was a further second off the pace down in 16th.
Team boss Toto Wolff offered a bleak outlook for Mercedes’ chances heading into Saturday, bracing himself for a “very, very difficult” qualifying. Hamilton and Bottas both struggled in the early part of final practice, reporting a lack of rear- and front-end grip.
But as the minutes ticked down, Hamilton finally strung a decent lap together to shoot up to third place in the final classification, four-tenths of a second down on surprise leader Pierre Gasly. It was hardly a convincing display from Mercedes, particularly with Bottas still outside the top 10, but the momentum was building.
“We were still pretty much a disaster in FP3,” Hamilton said. “But we discovered something at the end of P3, and I continued to push down in that direction, and it paid dividends.”
The discovery to take a different set-up direction helped to solve some of the tyre warm-up issues the Mercedes car had been battling through practice – a hangover from Monaco – and gave Hamilton the chance to turn things around.
“We tried something right at the end just with the set-up, and it unlocked the potential a little bit,” Hamilton explained. “it was really just about getting the tyres to work. We just can’t get our tyres to switch on like the others generally can, so the night and day difference in feeling was all of a sudden the tyres started working, and we were kind of back in the game.”
The breakthrough came after a long night of work and analysis for Mercedes that lasted right up to the start of qualifying. As much faith as Hamilton has in the team he has enjoyed so much success with, there was still an unease he could end up going in the wrong direction.
“I had a lot of anxiety, because you don’t know if you’re going to get it right or going to get it wrong,” Hamilton said. “It [could] mean you’re out of the top 10 like we were earlier this morning and yesterday.
“Eventually we just had to let it go, literally like 10 minutes before the session finished. We were here last night until 11 o’clock. Again just before the session, 10 minutes before, we were still making small changes, and then just had to shake it off and go for it and go all out.”
Wolff revealed Mercedes went to “extreme” lengths with the set-up of the car to get the desired result. “[They] weren’t a silver bullet but it was just really crunching through the numbers, trying things, getting the feedback of the drivers and eventually we had the car in a more decent place,” he said. “So it was the last run in FP3 where we tried to confirm the step and the car was there or thereabouts.”
One of the tactics that stood Hamilton and Bottas out from the rest of the field throughout qualifying was going for two warm-up laps before going for their flying laps. Both drivers did this in Q2 and Q3, avoiding getting caught out by red flags that came at the end of each session. For Hamilton in particular, it allowed him to get into far stronger shape, sitting third in the final Q2 standings.
Hamilton’s first effort in Q3 put him second on the grid, splitting Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen. He was only 0.232 seconds shy of Leclerc’s pole effort, finding close to seven-tenths of a second from his best time in FP2.
But Hamilton felt there was a little bit more time in the lap, having got too close to Bottas in a bid to get a tow. “I definitely think there was time left on the table, I think I was too close to Valtteri on the first lap,” Hamilton said. “I struggled, I was a bit down in the middle sector because I was just too close to the car ahead. But anyways, I will take it.”
In the end, the red flag for Yuki Tsunoda’s crash at Turn 3 brought qualifying to an end, ensuring Hamilton clinched second on the grid – crucially, ahead of Verstappen.
Hamilton is known to thrive on adversity, coming back stronger when the going gets tough. Monaco was a sobering experience he vowed the team would learn from, with the Baku turnaround seeming to act as proof of that. It’s no wonder he was so ebullient after qualifying.
“Honestly, it’s one of the greatest feelings,” Hamilton said. “For the experience we’ve gone through, for the difficult experience we’ve gone through, being out of the top 10 all weekend and really struggling to understand and extract performance from our car, it feels fantastic.
“[I’m] really happy to be up here, grateful to have got the lap in. It puts us in for a much different race than we anticipated after yesterday.”
The four-point deficit to Verstappen looked like it would grow after Friday in Baku. Now Hamilton finds himself ahead of his title rival on the grid with a chance to reclaim the points lead.
But the lessons learned from his Baku turnaround could yet prove even more valuable across the remainder of the season.