Max Verstappen claims pole for Australian GP but Mercedes roar again

Max Verstappen claimed pole for Red Bull in the Australian Grand Prix, mastering testing, cool conditions in Melbourne and lowering the Albert Park lap record four times to confirm his favouritism for Sunday’s race.

He beat the Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton into second and third, a great result for the team who are struggling this season. Fernando Alonso was in fourth for Aston Martin.

“I am so happy with this,” said Hamilton. “This is a totally unexpected and really proud of the team. George did really well and for us to be up on the two front rows is a dream for us. We’re all working as hard as we can and hope tomorrow we can give them a run for their money.”

Australia’s Oscar Piastri, born in Melbourne and competing in his first home grand prix, was in 16th for McLaren at Albert Park. “We adjusted the front wing a little bit for the last run and maybe it wasn’t the best,” the 21-year-old rookie said. “A little bit of inexperience on my side potentially … it wasn’t the best preparation. All weekend it has been difficult to get the first lap going with the tyres because it’s so cold … what we did was fine, just not quite good enough.”

Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez, hopeful of mounting a title challenge against Verstappen this season, suffered a huge setback. He locked-up into turn three and went off in Q1, beaching the car and ending his session, finishing in 20th place. The Mexican had struggled in final practice and indicated to his team that there was an issue with his car that was causing him to lock-up.

With the temperatures cool and the soft tyres needing working up to speed the drivers stayed out during Q3 to set quick laps and then ease off. In the opening stages Hamilton set a very strong time, just nine-thousandths shy of Verstappen’s opening gambit of 1min 17.262seconds.

Changing for a set of new tyres, the final laps were tense with rain expected. With his teammate out of the running Verstappen enjoyed an advantage however and once more went quicker on the final runs as the clock clicked down.

His final lap was enough to secure pole with a 1min 16.732secs but behind him the two Mercedes drivers enjoyed their best session of the season. Russell was just two-tenths back with Hamilton three-tenths down, with both drivers enjoying an unexpectedly competitive level of performance.

“A lot of hard work going on back at the factory, here in Melbourne and what a session for us – the car felt alive,” Russell enthused. “The lap was right on the limit and I’ve got to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed we didn’t get pole position.”

Having suffered a mechanical problem in qualifying at the last round in Jeddah, Verstappen’s exemplary performance is exactly the return to form the 25-year-old had been expecting from his team. The car was once more at its best and the 2021-22 world champion exploited it ruthlessly.

Verstappen, who drove a serene pole-to-flag victory in Bahrain looks in every position to repeat the feat on Sunday. He now has 22 poles but this is first in Australia, a circuit where he has yet to take a win. “I think the last run was very good,” said Verstappen. “The whole weekend has been very tough to get the tyres in the right window to push straight away but it all worked out in Q3. Very happy with the lap and delighted to be in pole position.”

Max Verstappen (centre) of Red Bull poses with Mercedes’ British drivers George Russell (left) and Lewis Hamilton, who qualified second and third.
Max Verstappen (centre) of Red Bull poses with Mercedes’ British drivers George Russell (left) and Lewis Hamilton, who qualified second and third. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

For Red Bull, on the occasion of their 350th GP, it is their first pole in Australia since Sebastian Vettel last took the top spot for them in 2013. They will be hoping it will herald the end of the drought in Australia, where the team have not won the race for over a decade, with Vettel last taking the flag for the team in 2011.

Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc were in fifth and seventh for Ferrari and Lance Stroll in sixth for Aston Martin. Pierre Gasly was ninth for Alpine and Nico Hülkenberg in 10th for Haas. Alex Albon returned another superb afternoon to take eighth for Williams.

Esteban Ocon was in 11th for Alpine, with Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries in 12th and 15th for AlphaTauri, Lando Norris in 13th for McLaren and Kevin Magnussen 14th for Haas. Guanyu Zhou and Valtteri Bottas were in 17th and 19th for Alfa Romeo, and Logan Sargeant in 18th for Williams.

The Guardian