Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was perfectly placed to stretch his Formula One lead after taking a third pole position in a row in Austria on Saturday with Lewis Hamilton only fourth for Mercedes.
McLaren’s Lando Norris joined Verstappen on the front row, a sensational career high for the young Briton, with Verstappen’s Mexican teammate Sergio Perez qualifying third at the scenic Red Bull Ring.
The pole completed a hat-trick for the young Dutch driver, after France and last weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix at the same Austrian circuit, with Red Bull now poised for a fifth successive win.
The 23-year-old is 18 points clear of seven-time world champion Hamilton after eight races, with Red Bull chasing a fifth successive victory to pull further ahead in both championships.
Verstappen’s pole lap of one minute, 03.720 seconds was only 0.048 faster than Norris’s effort, Mercedes-powered McLaren’s first front row since 2012.
“I think Q3 was pretty bad. I’m of course happy to be first but not the way we got it,” said Verstappen of the tight margin, with Norris quicker all the way to turn nine but just missing out at the end.
“Of course, to be twice on pole here nevertheless is very good. Hopefully, we can finish it off tomorrow.”
The Dutchman was cheered on by the biggest crowd of a COVID-19 affected season, the majority in orange shirts — although Norris, whose car is papaya orange, jokingly questioned their allegiance.
“I feel epic,” said Norris. “It was probably one of my best laps I’ve done.
“The fans are cool here, everyone in orange supporting McLaren, not Max. It’s cool to have them back. I know tomorrow’s race is going to be tough but we did the best job we could today.”
Hamilton, whose last pole was in Spain in May, recognised he faced even more of a challenge than last weekend, when he was on the front row but could not match Verstappen’s speed.
“We tried everything to get more out of the car and it’s just the underlying pace,” said the Briton, whose two-year contract extension had been announced in the morning.
Hamilton said a win on Sunday looked out of the question on pure pace.
“I would say that’s an easy cruise win for Max,” he added. “For us, it’s to see if we can get ahead of at least Perez and try to limit the damage this weekend.”
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas will line up fifth, with Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda sixth and seventh for AlphaTauri.
Sebastian Vettel qualified eighth for Aston Martin but was then handed a three-place grid drop for blocking Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, who ended up 14th.
That lifted George Russell to eighth instead for Williams.
Alonso was furious over the radio with Vettel, a four times world champion.
“I think we lost an opportunity to be tomorrow P5 or P6 on the grid, and a different race,” he said. “So now I guess we will not score points tomorrow. Whatever penalty they give to the others is never enough.
“It was probably our best car of the season in qualifying and we didn’t maximise it.”
Russell did, securing his team’s best qualifying effort since 2018.
“Q3 in any circumstances is massive for us, let alone doing it on the mediums,” the 2018 Formula Two champion said of reaching the final phase.
“I’ve never been so pumped up since probably winning a race three years ago now”.
Less so was Australian Daniel Ricciardo, Norris’s teammate, who qualified 13th and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in 17th.