Australian GP: Verstappen on pole ahead of Russell and Hamilton

Australian GP: Verstappen on pole ahead of Russell and Hamilton

Max Verstappen claimed pole position for tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix, but his Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez will start from the back of the grid after locking up and running off into the gravel at the start of qualifying..

Mercedes emerged from the session as the surprise package, George Russell taking up second place on the front row with Lewis Hamilton just behind in third alongside Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.

Carlos Sainz was the best of the Ferrari drivers in fifth from Lance Stroll, while Charles Leclerc struggled to find his form and was only seventh ahead of Williams’ Alex Albon.

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  • 2023 Australian Grand Prix – Qualifying results

Once again, Max Verstappen went into qualifying as favourite to claim pole position – but it was by no means the same sort of domination Red Bull had enjoyed in previous weeks. Although he had topped final practice it had been another messy, chilly, rain-hit session for all concerned and his margin over Fernando Alonso was just 0.162s, with a mere one second spread covering the top dozen. And Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez had endured a particularly torrid time earlier in the day, with multiple lock-ups suggesting a fundamental set-up problem for the Red Bull engineers to hunt down in the interval before the start of Q1.

Q1: Verstappen quickest after Perez gets beached in the gravel

It was still rather cold and gloomy when the lights went green at the end of pit lane to get the first round of qualifying underway, but the track was essentially dry again despite earlier rain. Not willing to risk a sudden shower dousing the circuit, there were many early takers to get down to business – although the front runners from Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes and Aston Martin were confident enough to initially hold back and avoid the rush hour traffic.

Alex Albon took the early honours at the top of the timings with a lap of 1:18.944s, but the Williams was soon deposed by Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg going half a second quicker. There were also times from McLaren, Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri before the big beasts started to stir, with Verstappen and Perez deciding not to waste any further time. However Perez’ earlier practice problems continued to be on display for all to see as the Red Bull went off after locking up at turn 3. With the car beached in the wet gravel, the red flag was out for retrieval by the marshals with Perez out of the car and watching on helplessly, done for the day before he’d even got started.

The clock had stopped with just under 12 minutes remaining, only nine cars having set representative flying lap times before the stoppage. When the session resumed, Verstappen was quick to get to work followed by the others who hadn’t had a chance to complete a lap before the red flag, including Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, and Fernando Alonso and his Aston Martin team mate Lance Stroll.

Verstappen swiftly went top with a time of 1:18.063s – admittedly only three tenths quicker than Hulkenberg – with Stroll into third after a mistake meant Alonso backed off on his own initial run. Hamilton picked up fourth while Russell encountered some traffic and was only sixth fastest. Then it was the time for Ferrari to report in, Sainz going third but Leclerc only seventh. Some of the earlier runners were back and improving, Albon leaping up to second and Lando Norris improving to sixth; clearly there was plenty more to come in this session.

Sure enough, Verstappen moved the goal posts to 1:17.469s with Alonso and Stroll responding to the challenge by going second and third respectively, and Russell moving ahead of Albon, Hamilton, Sainz and Hulkenberg for provisional fourth. But the matter was still far from settled, and Albon improved again on his next run to go third with Sainz now up to fourth. It was, to say the least, turning out to be a very topsy-turvy first round, as proved by Hulkenberg’s latest run pushing the Haas back into fifth.

Under pressure at the bottom were the McLarens of Norris and local boy Oscar Piastri, with Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas also looking at risk of joining Perez on the sidelines. Norris found more time on his next run and jumped up to 12th – still by no means a comfortable position – leaving Logan Sargeant in the drop zone and Alpine’s Pierre Gasly on the bubble.

Gasly did manage to find more speed on his final run as the chequered flag dropped to pop him up to 13th, but Piastri fell short and missed the cut in 16th ahead of Zhou, Sargeant and Bottas – the experienced Finn having almost as much of a horror show today as Perez.

Q2: Verstappen stays quickest as Albon wins shoot-out for final transfer spot

AlphaTauri’s Nyck de Vries was eager to get back out on track when the session resumed for round two but it was Alonso took early command of the times with a lap of 1:17.681s which was pipped by Stroll. Then it was Leclerc’s turn to spring to life with a time of 1:17.681s to pip the Aston.

Hulkenberg was still looking on form as he split the Astons in third, before Verstappen took to the top once more with a time of 1:17.219s – a third of a second ahead of Leclerc. Alonso’s second flier restored the Spaniard to second place, just 0.065s off Verstappen’s target time with Russell making it into fourth.

At the other end, those looking under threat of elimination included Norris, de Vries and his team mate Yuki Tsunoda, while the two Alpines of Gasly and Esteban Ocon were the final cars to come out to play. When they finally posted times, Ocon was P9 but Gasly was stuck in the drop zone.

Just three hundredths of a second now covered the four drivers from eighth to 11th with time for just one more run by all concerned. The final flurry of laps saw Ocon pushed into the bottom five, Gasly rise to eighth, and the final slot in the top ten go to Albon in a shoot-out with Norris, who fell short and failed to improve. Joining Ocon and Norris on the bench when the final times were completed were Tsunoda, de Vries and Kevin Magnussen.

Q3: Verstappen claims pole from surging Mercedes duo Russell and Hamilton

There was no sign of complacency for Verstappen, who was eager to get back out on track when the final top ten pole shoot-out began. Conditions were still gloomy but there had been no more rain, although the radar was suggesting it remained a significant threat. Perhaps with that in mind, the Red Bull driver immediately punched in a time of 1:17.578s to secure provisional pole, although after bit of a moment through turn 13 it was still half a second slower than the best time he had finished on in Q2. Plenty of room for improvement, then.

Hulkenberg initially took second while the others opted for two warm-up laps instead. When the others finally posted times, Hamilton went to the top with a time of 1:17.271s ahead of Alonso, Russell, Leclerc and Sainz, with Albon slotting in ahead of Gasly and Hulkenberg. Stroll was yet to set a time, and when he eventually did so it was for an underwhelming seventh putting him just ahead of Albon.

Verstappen was soon back in action to reclaim the top spot with a time of 1:17.262s but that was only nine thousandths ahead of Hamilton, so there was still plenty to play for – especially with Verstappen once again radioing the Red Bull pit wall with complaints about downshifts on the RB19. It was proving something of a regular mantra from the Dutch driver in recent weeks.

It was still very close with everything to play for, the top six covered by under a tenth and a half as they began their final push laps. Verstappen moved forward with a new time of 1:16.732s with Alonso briefly up to second until the Aston was rebuffed by strong laps from Russell and Hamilton to go second and third.

Sainz managed to squeeze a little extra time out of the SF-23 but it was only enough for fifth ahead of the latest from Stroll. Leclerc salvaged seventh from a sub-par session to go ahead of Albon, with the final row of the top ten on tomorrow’s grid consisting of Gasly and Hulkenberg who had run out of soft tyres leaving him unable to make an impression on Q3.

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