Relentless Max Verstappen clinched his third straight pole position with a commanding drive for Red Bull at the Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday, while title rival Lewis Hamilton could only manage fourth place for flagging Mercedes.
Hamilton was under pressure in his final lap and went too wide on the last two turns. On the day he announced a two-year contract extension, the seven-time F1 champion was even upstaged by 21-year-old countryman Lando Norris, who qualified second for McLaren ahead of Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez.
Norris almost caught Verstappen, too, placing just .05 seconds behind him.
Verstappen leads Hamilton 5-2 in poles this season and the pressure is on Hamilton heading into Sunday’s race. He trails Verstappen by 18 points and 4-3 for wins.
A bad day for Mercedes saw Valtteri Bottas qualifying in fifth.
Cool and overcast conditions had been forecast for the final practice and qualifying, which would have favored Mercedes, but both sessions were held in warm weather with sporadic bursts of sunshine splashing the Red Bull ring.
One grandstand was packed with orange-shirted Dutch fans cheering on Verstappen every time he drove past. Others sat on grass banks dotted around the 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit nestled in the Styrian mountains.
In the first section of qualifying, known as Q1, Verstappen showed his intent.
He topped the charts with Hamilton .26 seconds adrift and only fourth fastest behind two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Norris.
Hamilton moved to the top in Q2, only for the Dutch contingent to roar as Verstappen replaced him. He topped Q2 by .331 seconds from Hamilton and .449 from Bottas.
There were celebrations in the Williams garage as George Russell scraped it into Q3 with 10th place — quite an achievement in a car lacking genuine pace.
Williams pushed both Ferraris out of Q2, with Carlos Sainz Jr. placing 11th and Charles Leclerc 12th.
Earlier Saturday, Verstappen dominated the third and final practice.
The Red Bull driver finished .54 seconds ahead of Bottas and a sizable .69 in front of Hamilton.
Verstappen’s main time gains were in terms of straight-line speed — a familiar strength this season — and on corners 1 and 3.
“Breaking too early and carrying too much speed into the apex,” was the answer given to Hamilton by his race engineer, when Hamilton asked why he was losing time on Turn 3.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly was an impressive fourth for AlphaTauri, while four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel was 10th for Aston Martin. The track announcer wished a happy birthday to the 34-year-old German before the session started.
Verstappen waited until nearly the halfway point of the hour-long run before coming out on track and rocketed up the leaderboard.
Earlier Saturday, Hamilton agreed to a two-year contract extension with Mercedes, taking him until the end of 2023.
He is having a tougher fight than many predicted this season.
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