Australian GP: Verstappen leaves it late to clinch easy pole

Pole position for Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20, with 2nd Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Ferrari and 3rd Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing. 23.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images
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Max Verstappen left it until the final round of qualifying to show his full colours, but once he woke up and came to life it proved to be another dominating performance for the Red Bull with a best time of 1:15.915s easily clinching pole for Sunday's Australian GP.

That was almost three tenths quicker than Ferrari's Carlos Sainz while Sergio Perez finished third ahead of Lando Norris in the McLaren. Charles Leclerc was unable to find extra speed on his final run, and finished P5 ahead of Oscar Piastri and George Russell.

Russell's Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton will start from outside the top ten after missing the cut at the end of Q2, getting bumped down at the last minute as the result of a late improvement from RB's Yuki Tsunoda.

The clouds that had been hanging over Albert Park earlier in the day had largely cleared away in time for qualifying leaving sunshine and blue skies, but the wind was still gusting as the cars started to stream out of pit lane to get the qualifying party started. For once, it was Charles Leclerc who was marginally favourite to take pole after beating Max Verstappen by a tiny margin in final practice, which had seen four drivers within a tenth of one another.

Circuit atmosphere - fans.
23.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Moy / XPB Images

Q1: Leclerc sets the early pace from Perez and Verstappen as Ricciardo misses the cut

Alex Albon was first out on track, in the chassis formerly driven by his Williams team mate Logan Sargeant who was now sitting out the weekend in pit lane as a consequence of Albon's FP1 smash. Albon was still not looking happy out on track, losing the rear through the final corner and skating wide as he dipped a wheel into the gravel on his first run.

Esteban Ocon was also in the wars as the Alpine kissed the barriers on his lap, while Sergio Perez earned himself a post-session appointment with the race stewards to discuss allegedly impeding Nico Hulkenberg at turn 13. Meanwhile the other drivers were getting on with business, with Verstappen going top early with a time of 1:17.478s which was two tenths quicker than Perez. The Ferraris soon took their turn, Charles Leclerc posting a time of 1:17.244s with Carlos Sainz moving into second followed by McLaren duo Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris putting verstappen in the shade.

However the temporary street circuit was still evolving fast and the times kept tumbling. Despite complaining of understeer on the RB20, Verstappen was soon back in charge only for Fernando Alonso to go quicker on fresh softs on the Aston Martin, and then for Sainz set a new target time of 1:16.731s which was over two tenths quicker than Leclerc's subsequent response. Perez and Verstappen then split the two Ferraris to go second and third, while Albon had a point to prove as he shot up to sixth place with his latest run.

Following a brief hiatus back in the pits, there was still time for one last set of push laps from all the drivers. At this point the five cars battling to avoid elimination were Pierre Gasly, Nico Hulkenberg, Daniel Ricciardo, Zhou Guanyu and Esteban Ocon, with Hulkenberg on the bubble. Ricciardo seemed to have found enough to jump up to safety only to have his lap time deleted leaving him mired in 18th to the dismay of the Aussie fans.

Despite his early brush with danger and the general sluggishness of the Alpine, Ocon found enough to put himself up to P14 pushing Hulkenberg into the bottom group along with Gasly. Zhou had also been unable to improve after damaging his front wing at the serrated kerb on the exit of turn 10, meaning the Sauber was the fourth car to be eliminated along with Ricciardo (Sargeant being the nominal 'fifth' having been withdrawn from the event on Friday).

Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP) Ferrari SF-24. 23.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Qualifying Day. -, EMail: © Copyright: Moy / XPB Images

Q2: Ferrari stays in charge as Hamilton misses the cut

The drivers were soon heading back out on track for the second part of qualifying. Both Red Bulls were on fresh sets of softs while the two Ferraris were on used sets, so it was no surprise to see Verstappen go comfortably top with a time of 1:16.387s, almost three tenths quicker than Sainz and Leclerc. The latter pair were both soon jumped by Piastri going second, to the delight of the home fans in the grandstands still getting over Ricciardo's early exit.

After the initial runs, Alonso was on the bubble in P10 and the five drivers at risk of failing to make the final round were Alex Albon, Yuki Tsunoda, Kevin Magnussen, Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Ocon. The cars then headed back to pit lane for fresh tyres and a tweak or two before their final push, and the switch to new C5 rubber duly propelled Sainz to the top of the times with a lap of 1:16.189s. convincingly quicker than Verstappen. Leclerc moved into third ahead of Piastri, while Perez' response was only good enough to put the Mexican into fifth ahead of Norris and the two Mercedes of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton.

Albon tried and failed to improve on 11th in his loaner company car, and that was his final run for the day. Alonso did manage to move out of danger into P7, dropping his team mate Lance Stroll down to touching distance of the cut in his place. Also under pressure was Hamilton: having been on pole here eight times in the past he found himself pushed down to ninth when he failed to improve his position with his final run after understeering through the final corners.

Tsunoda could and did find more speed, pushing Stroll out of the top ten, but the Canadian rose to the challenge and punched in a time good enough for eighth - which meant Hamilton did indeed miss the final cut in Melbourne for the first time since 2010, much to his disgust. He would join Albon, Bottas, Magnussen and Ocon on the sidelines. At the other end of the timesheets, Sainz held on to the top spot with Leclerc pipping Verstappen to second ahead of Piastri, Perez and Alonso.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB20 leaves the pits.
23.03.2024. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 3, Australian Grand Prix, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Qualifying Day.
-, EMail: © Copyright: Batchelor / XPB Images

Q3: Verstappen comes to life to beat Sainz and Perex to pole position in Melbourne

The question now was if Ferrari was really in control of proceedings and set for their first pole of the season, or whether Verstappen was about to stage a last round ambush on behalf of Red Bull. First to head out and set a time was Sainz who completed his initial Q3 lap in a time of 1:16.331s, a tenth quicker than Leclerc. But then Verstappen picked up the pace and went an impressive 0.283s ahead of Sainz, although Perez' time was only good enough for fourth.

Alonso had to abort his lap after running off at turn 6 and going through the gravel. He boxed and was soon back out on a temporarily deserted track, joined by Stroll who was making just a single run in Q2. Stroll suffered a tank-slapper through turn 6 resulting in a nondescript lap time only enough for eighth. By now other cars were back at work including Verstappen, Perez and Sainz: the two Red Bulls pulled out all the stops and Verstappen went top on 1:15.915s. Sainz wrung the neck of his Ferrari but peaked in second with a disappointingly large 0.270s deficit to Verstappen, while Leclerc was oddly off-colour on his final run as he failed to improve and found himself in fifth behind Piastri on Sunday's grid.

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