Lewis Hamilton maintained the momentum from last week’s stunning win in Brazil to claim pole for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix after a “really sweet” qualifying lap on Saturday.
Max Verstappen, who leads his Mercedes rival by 14 points with three races to go, is set to start alongside Hamilton on the front row on Sunday.
But the Dutchman will first have to pay a visit to the stewards for allegedly “not respecting double waved yellow flags”.
Verstappen could face a potentially decisive grid penalty if he is found to have broken the rules.
The time gap between the two leading cars will also give all at Red Bull a restless night — almost half a second, a clear sign Hamilton’s new engine fitted last weekend has injected fresh life into his quest for an unprecedented eighth world title.
His flying lap time of 1min 20.827 that clinched Qatar’s first ever pole position proved way beyond Verstappen, who was 0.455sec slower.
“That last lap was beautiful. It was a really sweet lap. This track is amazing to drive. Woo, it felt good!” he tweeted.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas posted the third quickest time under floodlights at the Losail circuit to fill the second row with Pierre Gasly for Alpha Tauri.
Mercedes were handed an unexpected potential advantage in their titanic title battle with Red Bull after Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez failed to make it to the Q3 top 10 shootout.
With the Mexican down in the sixth row on Sunday’s grid Red Bull’s tactics to upset Mercedes rest on a one-man band named Verstappen.
Perez was not wrong when he ventured: “It’s going to be a very tricky race.”
This was Hamilton’s 102nd career pole but his first since Hungary almost four months ago.
‘I’ll give it everything’
And compared to last weekend’s drama, when the 36-year-old Briton overcame a slew of penalties to finish fifth from the back of the grid in Saturday’s qualifying sprint, then win on Sunday from 10th, this was almost routine.
Given the flashpoint incident last Sunday when Verstappen appeared to push Hamilton wide on his first attempt to overtake him, Sunday’s start promises to be another pivotal moment in the razor-sharp rivalry between the pair which has made 2021 a season apart.
With his Dutch arch-rival out to beat him to the first corner Hamilton said: “It is a decent run into Turn 1, which is wide so I will give it everything.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “We’ve got an opportunity down on the run to Turn 1 tomorrow.
“But that last lap of Lewis’ was phenomenally quick. Their straight line speed has come down a bit, it looks more similar to ours now which is good to see.
“Lewis made all his time in Turns 6 and 7. It was a very strong lap by Lewis.”
Verstappen accepted that with Perez down in mid-grid it “shows we are struggling a bit more than normal”.
But he added: “Still second, so still all to play for. There’s a lot of unknowns, we just need to work on our start and see where we end up.”
He will be hoping for a repeat of his electric starts in the last two races in Mexico and Brazil where he had got past pole-sitter Bottas in both races by the first or second corners.
Gasly’s place on the second row came after the French driver suffered a puncture on his flying lap.
He stopped on the start/finish straight, bringing out the yellow flags which Verstappen was accused of not respecting.
Sunday’s first F1 race at Qatar’s Losail circuit, mainly associated up to now with MotoGP, is followed by Saudi Arabia, another newcomer to the F1 calendar, before the 22-race season closes on familiar territory in Abu Dhabi on December 12.
Get the hottest sports news straight into your inbox
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.