AUSTRALIAN GP – Max Verstappen beats the Mercedes duo to pole by two tenths as Sergio Perez crashes out
Max Verstappen has beaten George Russell and Lewis Hamilton to take pole position for the Australian Grand Prix. The Dutchman was two-tenths faster as Mercedes emerged as the surprise challenger in qualifying after Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez crashed out in Q1.
Verstappen set a 16.732in changeable conditions at the end of Q3, that was despite the Red Bull driver having problems with his battery and transmission. Up until the final runs it looked as if Fernando Alonso would continue Aston Martin’s strong start to the year, that was until Russell moved under 17.9 on his early attempt, before his last run moved him to just over two-tenths off.
The Red Bull driver had topped all three sessions, however, there appears to be a few problems with the Red Bull but that so far hasn’t stopped them looking like theirthe favourites this season.
Russell out qualifying his seven-time world champion team-mate for the third time in as many races this season. Hamilton meanwhile was third beating Alonso by a quarter of a hundredth, he pipped the Aston Martin on his final run.
Mercedes had gone into the weekend saying they would need and are making major changes to their design philosophy. But they looked to have mad gains and will be hoping that the changes expected in Baku sees them make another step forwards towards Red Bull.
Also following Friday practice sessions both Russell and Hamilton believed the third row of the grid was the best they could hope for in Qualifying, but as the pole position shootout played out, with Perez absent, it became clear the W14s were Verstappen’s biggest challengers.
That was despite the Aston Martin looking all weekend the stronger car, after the session the Spaniard told a French newspaper this weekend that it was clear now Hamilton no longer had the best car and that he “had weaknesses”.
Perhaps a flashback to their rivalry as teammates in 2007, when Alonso was famously passed by Hamilton on his debut around the outside of Brabham on the opening lap. That year would see one of the most tumultuous fights and scandal involving McLaren, Ferrari, and Renault (Alpine), as the Spygate scandal rocked the three biggest teams at the time.
Verstappen said, “I think the last run was very good. 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.”
Russell added, “We wasn’t expecting that, that’s for sure. A lot of hard work going on back at the factory, here in Melbourne and what a session for us – the car felt alive. 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.”
Hamilton said, “his 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.”
Carlos Sainz put his Ferrari fifth, he was almost a tenth and a half behind Alonso and spilt the two Aston Martin’s going nearly four-tenths faster than Lance Stroll. Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc couldn’t improve on his final attempt, leaving him six hundredths behind the Canadian.
Perez had one of the worst Saturday’s of his career, he had struggled through out FP3 where he had gone off several times. He made the same mistake, locking up at Turn Three before running into the gravel and becoming beached in mud just before the barrier.
He had also missed the start of FP3 as Red Bull worked on his car, their had been talk following his pole and win in Jeddah about whether he could fight Verstappen all season. He will hope to respond strongly to stop the downwards spiral and this year being dominated by Verstappen.
Perez said “It was really bad, a terrible day. Already in FP3 we had this issue. We thought we fixed it, but we didn’t, so I really hope we are able to fix it come the race or it will be very difficult to race like this.”
He will be hoping to repeat Verstappen’s drive in Jeddah from fifteenth to second, but Albert Park while it is faster than pre-pandemic it remains a old school circuit where overtaking can be more risky and there is a chance of safety cars.
Alex Albon made Williams’s first Q3 appearance of the season going eighth fastest, nearly seven hundredths ahead of Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg who rounded out the top ten. The British-Thai driver setting his fastest time on his final run to move him into eighth ahead of the Alpine and Haas.
Albon had just made it through to the final part of qualifying, the Williams driver knocked out Esteban Ocon by seven-thousandths of a second. That was despite him needing to abort his final run after clipping the kerb at the end of Lakeside Drive and Turn Eleven, before catching the rear of the Alpine. This also wasn’t helped by Ocon getting caught in traffic.
Yuki Tsunoda was twelfth going two hundredths ahead of Lando Norris with Kevin Magnussen a further hundredth behind, all three had improved on their final runs in Q2 but it was not enough to get out of the drop zone. Tsunoda had lost time after being called to the weight bridge during the session.
Nyck de Vries was another not to improve, he couldn’t repeat his last lap improvements which saw him out of Q1 for the first time this year.
The surprise early casualty of Q1 was Perez, the Mexican failed to set a lap after repeating his errors in FP1 and FP3. He skated across the gravel but as he turned right and tried to manoeuvre his way out he became stuck at the edge next to a muddy access road close to the barrier, where the Mexican driver fumed he had suffered the “same issue” as earlier in the weekend.
He said on the team radio, “We need to solve that issue man. It was the same **** issue again.”
This possibly refers to the braking problem Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said both of his charges were grappling with earlier in the weekend. After an eight-minute delay, the opening segment resumed, with the pack fuelled to run throughout.
Oscar Piastri was the fastest of those knocked out in Q1, he had improved on his final lap but it only moved him into sixteenth and missed out by four hundredths of a second. Guanyu Zhou was seventeenth, the Alfa Romeo spilt by the Williams of Logan Sargeant.
Sargeant had an early spin at the start of Q1, he put his right-side wheels on the still slippery exiting the final corner and he pirouetted around diving back into the pits. Valtteri Bottas was the final driver to set a time going nineteenth, a quarter of a second behind the American.