MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Max Verstappen will have his best chance of claiming an inaugural Australian Grand Prix title after taking pole position in his Red Bull for Sunday’s third race of the Formula One season on the Albert Park circuit.
Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is among rivals sharing renewed hope after the dominance Red Bull has had over its rivals was diminished during Saturday’s qualifying session.
Verstappen, a two-time world champion, was not pleased with the performance of his RB19 despite setting a track record around the circuit on Saturday.
After setting a lap record during practice earlier on Saturday, the drivers’ championship leader set a benchmark of 1 minute, 16:732 seconds in the final session of qualifying.
“I have been on the podium once, but I want to be on a different step this time,” Verstappen said after claiming his first pole position in Australia.
His teammate Sergio Perez, who sits just one point behind the Dutch driver in the championship, will start from the back of the grid after enduring a horrible day in Melbourne.
After declaring Red Bull would win every race this season after their supremacy in Bahrain, Mercedes driver George Hamilton shared the front row of the starting grid after recording a time 0.236 seconds slower than Verstappen.
Hamilton will start in third position on what was an encouraging day for Mercedes, with Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso qualifying fourth.
“This is totally unexpected. For us to be up in the two front rows is a dream,” Hamilton said. “To be this close to Red Bull is incredible. I think this gives everyone in the team a boost and a glimpse of hope. This will spur everyone on. It will inspire everyone to continue to push.”
Verstappen, who won the season-opening race in Bahrain, was progressively faster on Saturday but raised concerns about his car on the lap prior to setting the new mark.
“Downshifts are getting worse as well,” Verstappen said.
Verstappen said he has confidence in the Red Bull’s reliability. But he was surprised by how close the Mercedes pair finished.
“I think the last run was very good. The whole weekend has been very tough … but it all worked out in Q3,” he said. “I think we always try to fine-tune and we will continue to do that. I think tomorrow we will have a good race car, but it is quite tricky on the tires.”
Russell and Hamilton believe Perez, who won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix two weeks ago, will struggle to contend after his difficulties on Saturday, saying passing is difficult around Albert Park.
Perez endured a difficult Saturday as he struggled to retain control of his RB19. After experiencing difficulties in the third and final practice session earlier on Saturday, the 33-year-old’s wheels locked at Turn 3 early, with Perez ending up in the gravel.
In a sharp exchange with his team over radio, Perez complained the mechanical problem was the same issue that plagued him during P3 earlier in the day — “it was the same (expletive) issue again,” he said.
Melbourne’s Oscar Piastri will start from 16th on the grid when driving in his home Grand Prix for the first time after his McLaren failed to progress past the initial qualifying stage. McLaren’s struggles continued with Piastri’s teammate Lando Norris, who will begin from 13th position.
Courtney Walsh, The Associated Press