Lewis Hamilton battled his way to pole position for the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP in Jeddah despite complaining of grip issues, with his team mate Valtteri Bottas making it a Mercedes 1-2 for tomorrow's race.
Red Bull's Max Verstappen had looked on course to deny Hamilton the prize but made a rare mistake, overcooking it into the final corner and running wide into a significant contact with the wall
Assuming that his car is not too badly damaged, Verstappen will still start from third place alongside Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, whose own team mate Carlo sSainz will be 15th on the grid after spinning in Q2 before setting a time.
After controlling Friday's practice sessions at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, the tide had seemingly turned against Mercedes on Saturday. For starters, their grip on the timesheets had been shaken in FP3 with Red Bull's Max Verstappen pipping Lewis Hamilton to the top. Then came the summons from the stewards office for Hamilton to talk over two alleged incidents in that same session (ater dismissed without penalty); and then the pit crew were spurred into action by the discovery of a fuel leak on Valtteri Bottas' car requiring an urgent power unit change - without incurring a penalty - before the start of qualifying, by which time the sun was setting, the air and track temperature cooling, but tensions sharply rising on pit lane.
Q1: Perez quickest ahead of misfiring Bottas
When the lights at the end of pit lane went green it was the two Williams drivers George Russell and Nicholas latifi who were first out on track on soft tyres under the floodlights, with Russell setting the first time of the evening with a lap of 1:30.964s quickly beaten by his team mate. They weren't alone for long, with the rest of the field spurred into action so as to avoid getting caught out by the traffic which had proved to be such an issue in earlier sessions.
McLaren took a brief residency at the top with Lando Norris' 1:29.136s a couple of tenths quicker than Daniel Ricciardo. Despite fighting his car through several corners, when it came to his turn it was an easy task for Verstappen to go quicker by almost half a second. The two McLarens were then split by efforts from Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and by Bottas whose power unit change had been successfully completed, although this initial shakedown run was only good enough for fifth even as Hamilton's first run put him top by 0.193s.
There were strong initial offerings from both AlphaTauri drivers with Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly making an early claim on third and fourth, before new runs saw Bottas ease into second behind Hamilton followed by Charles Leclerc and the two McLaren cars. With a flier from Sainz putting Ferrari ahead with a solid 1:28.330s, Verstappen had been pushed down to seventh while his team mate Sergio Perez was outside the top ten altogether in 12th.
Everyone needed to pit for fresh tyres, and when the action resumed - everyone still on softs - track evolution continued to prove a strong factor as times continued to tumble. Verstappen briefly went quickest despite a self-proclaimed "terrible first sector" but then it was Bottas' turn to be back on top with a time of 1:28.057s, two tenths quicker than the Red Bull. With two minutes to go Perez narrowly went top, while a lurid slide at the first turn forced Hamilton to abort his latest run.
A crush of traffic in the final laps caused brief pandemonium and affected the start of several final push laps as the chequered flag came out to end the session: Russell did enough to claw his way to safety in 14th ahead of Fernando Alonso, while Latifi was the first man eliminated, but it was a disaster for Aston Martin with both Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll dumped out of the running along with Haas pair Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. But perhaps the biggest shock was Bottas: despite ending the session in second behind Perez, he then reported an engine misfire that brought him crawling to a halt in pit lane, his involvement in the remainder of the session now hanging in the balance.
Q2: Hamilton quickest as Sainz spins into elimination
Once again, everyone as quick to get back out on track when the lights went green, with the front runners all having switched to the medium compound for the second round. Even Bottas was able to return to the fray, his misfire at the end of Q1 seemingly an easily corrected glitch of no lasting importance.
First to set a time was Verstappen clocking in with a run of 1:27.953s, nine tenths quicker than Perez. Hamilton opted to back off, deciding that the tyres needed a second warm-up lap before they were ready for a push lap. Even then he was only quick enough for fourth place, three quarters of a second slower than Verstappen and complaining over the team radio that he still had no grip - even as Bottas went faster into second place which became third after a better run for Perez. Leclerc was up to fourth but there was a scare for his team mate Carlos Sainz, who spun at the fast turn 10 and was very lucky to survive unscathed.
Hamilton finally found things more to his liking with his latest run that put him into second, 0.122s behind Perez who had himself just pipped Verstappen to the top spot. The AlphaTauris were still on good form with Tsunoda fifth from Gasly, and Norris was seventh on soft tyres ahead of Leclerc, Esteban Ocon and Antonio Giovinazzi leaving Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen in the drop zone with Alonso and Russell. Also in the bottom five was Sainz, who had yet to set a time after his spin and check-up on pit lane. Although he was back out in time to make one last do-or-die run, doubts about the end plates on his rear wing and another tankslapper at turn 10 forced him to abandon his bid to make it through, leaving him 15th on the grid for tomorrow's start.
During this drama, Hamilton had found extra pace to go top with a final run of 1:27.712s putting him ahead of Perez and Verstappen. Bottas ended the round in fourth despite making contact with Raikkonen in the final seconds, although fortunately for the Finn the race stewards were not inclined to investigate the incident further.
Q3: Hamilton and Bottas lock out front row after Verstappen shunt
The final top ten pole shoot-out began with a big scare for Hamilton at turn 11 forcing him to abort that run. His next effort saw the back end of the Mercedes get loose again, this time at turn 1, but it was still enough to put him at the top with a time of 1:28.035s just a tenth ahead of Bottas. Unsurprisingly, Verstappen's response moments later was over three tenths quicker than both Mercedes, while Perez was fourth from Norris, Tsunoda and Leclerc.
After stopping for new tyres, Hamilton was back out for a final push: this time it was mistake-free and he duly went into provisional pole with a time of 1:27.511s and just Verstappen to come. The Red Bull driver was utterly committed and even came within a hairsbreadth of scraping the wall early in his run. He still looked on course for the top spot by the final sector, but then understeered and ran deep into the last corner after locking up and hitting the wall on the exit to end his hopes of pole.
It meant that Hamilton had claimed his first back-to-back poles of the season, and a final effort from Bottas had succeeded in also making it another Mercedes 1-2 front row lockout after a hard-fought session. Verstappen remains in third - assuming that no serious damage to the Red Bull results in a grid penalty - alongside Leclerc in fourth from Perez, Gasly, Norris, Tsunoda, Ocon and Giovinazzi.