Hamilton too quick for Verstappen in Qatar qualifying

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Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton claimed his 102nd Formula 1 pole position by an impressive margin from Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas in Saturday evening's qualifying for the Qatar GP.

Hamilton was almost half a second ahead of his Red Bull rival as he bids to close the 14 point gap between them in the 2021 drivers championship, making this week's race result potentially crucial in deciding the outcome.

A number of top drivers failed to make it into the top ten pole shootout, with Sergio Perez, Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo all missing the cut at the end of Q2.

Circuit atmosphere - fans in the grandstand. 20.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

With the sun setting over Losail International Circuit and the floodlights taking over, the wind was picking up and the air temperature had dropped to a mere '26V' as the drivers prepared to get to work for the first-ever Formula 1 qualifying session in Qatar. Final practice earlier in the day suggested that Mercedes came in as favourites for pole position, but if there was anything that we'd learned in 2021 it was that things rarely went as predicted.

Q1: Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas closely matched at the top

The two Haas cars were first out on track when the lights at pit exit went green, the team having completed repairs on Nikita Mazepin's power controller on top of the overnight chassis change that meant he had missed two of the three practice sessions. Unfortunately he quickly sustained damage to his front wing on his first run, forcing him back to pit lane for further repairs. Among the others getting out and about were the Aston Martins of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, the Williams pair of George Russell and Nicholas Latifi, and Alfa Romeo duo Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi.

The bigger beasts soon stirred themselves, and after five minutes the top of the timesheets were occupied by Ferrari drivers Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. Sergio Perez briefly went fastest before being deposed by McLaren's Lando Norris, but that was no match for Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton clocking in at 1:22.019s which was two tenths quicker than Max Verstappen, while Valtteri Bottas was only good enough for fourth after losing almost a second with an early mistake on his first push lap. It didn't take him long to regroup and go top with his second run on the soft compound by 0.003s from Hamilton.

Fernando Alonso (ESP) Alpine F1 Team A521. 20.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

Alpine left it late to make an appearance, but Fernando Alonso confirmed the team's pace this weekend by moving into fourth place ahead of Sainz, with Pierre Gasly establishing himself in sixth place with his latest run ahead of Norris, Yuki Tsunoda and Esteban Ocon who was complaining that his Alpine was 'shaking'. The Red Bulls both made second runs on their soft tyres which was enough to put Verstappen top by two hundredths and Perez safely up to fourth. Leclerc also another run but had his time deleted for exceeding track limits leaving him uncomfortably close to the elimination zone where the cars most at risk of elimination went two-by-two through the ranks of Williams, Alfa and Haas.

Drivers were frantically jockeying for position for the best spot to start their final flying lap attempt, but ultimately everyone did make the line to start their run. Hamilton made a point by going top again by a tenth and Sainz took the opportunity to claim fourth. Leclerc pulled himself to the marginal safety of 13th place between two underperforming McLarens of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, while Russell did enough to survive the cut in 15th leaving Raikkonen, Latifi, Giovinazzi, Schumacher and Mazepin parking their cars for the rest of the evening.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB16B. 20.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

Q2: Hamilton and Gasly quickest as Perez, Leclerc and Ricciardo miss the cut

Russell was first to break cover at the start of the second round with the rest of the drivers quickly following him out. He and both AlphaTauris were on soft tyres but mediums were the popular choice of compound for everyone else for their initial run. Russell's time of 1:22.635s was good enough to keep him ahead of Ricciardo, but was quickly swept aside by Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas going straight to the top. The soft compound enabled Gasly to muscle his way into second place only three tenths off Hamilton's 1:21.682s and Tsunoda into fifth ahead of Sainz, Norris and Perez.

Alpine and Aston Martin both now opted for softs with Alonso going sixth ahead of Ocon, and Vettel moving into ninth ahead of Stroll. That left some surprising figures in the drop zone during the brief calm as the drivers returned to pit lane: Norris, Perez, Russell, Russell, Ricciardo and Leclerc were all at risk of missing the cut.

Russell was first to come back out again and had the track to himself for his final attempt, but it was far from the sort of stellar lap that's seen him make Q3 in the past and he duly remained in 13th place. Norris did find something extra to push into the top ten ahead of Sainz but Leclerc's baffling lack of pace was confirmed when he could do no better than 13th ahead of Ricciardo and Russell, and Perez also surprisingly failed to find safety with his final run and duly missed the cut in 11th. A last-gasp run by Vettel did succeed in putting the Aston up to eighth, but his team mate Stroll had no such reward and was eliminated in 12th.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12. 20.11.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 20, Qatar Grand Prix, Doha, Qatar

Q3: Hamilton too hot for Verstappen and Bottas as Mercedes claim pole

Mercedes, AlphaTauri and Alpine were now the only teams still to have both both dogs in the final round, along with 'single-serving' representatives in the form of Verstappen, Norris, Sainz and Vettel. The cars streamed out of pit lane sporting a mixture of fresh and used soft tyres for their initial runs, with Alonso last to emerge.

Despite a big twitch at the start of his flying lap, Hamilton's initial time of 1:21.262s was more than good enough to put him ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Gasly, Alonso and Sainz best of the rest ahead of Norris, Tsunoda, Ocon and Vettel. Everyone then retreated back to pit lane to regroup and take on fresh tyres for one final run at the end of the 12-minute session, with Verstappen picking up the rear this time in the hope of benefitting from space and any remaining track evolution.

Hamilton was on a charge to stamp his authority on proceedings once and for all and punched in a new target time of 1:20.827s for the others to match. Verstappen did improve but remained 0.455s away from pole with Bottas not a factor in third. Gasly clung to fourth place despite damaging his front wing running across the kerb on the last run and limping across the line with a puncture having left a trail of local yellows in his wake fortunately without seriously affecting other drivers completing their final runs. Behind Alonso, Norris managed to wring a little extra pace to put the McLaren into sixth ahead of Sainz, Tsunoda, Ocon and Vettel.

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