As a relentless Max Verstappen clinched his third straight pole position with a commanding drive for Red Bull at the Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday, his title rival Lewis Hamilton could only manage fourth place on the day flagging Mercedes announced his two-year contract extension.
Verstappen’s latest pole was on his team’s home track at the Red Bull ring, where he won from pole last weekend. The Formula One championship leader is aiming for a third straight victory and a fifth in a row for Red Bull. But it’s a measure of his form that he thinks he could have done better.
“I am happy to be on pole, but not the way we like it,” Verstappen said. “I didn’t expect to lose so much time on the straights, but that’s what we’ll know for next time.”
Hamilton was under pressure in his final lap and went too wide on the last two turns.
The seven-time defending F1 champion was even upstaged by 21-year-old countryman Lando Norris, who qualified second for McLaren ahead of Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez — who has also won a race this season.
“We definitely can’t take it to the Red Bulls. They are just too fast,” a despondent Hamilton said. “My race is with the two guys ahead of me, trying to get past them.”
It was Norris, and not Hamilton, who almost caught Verstappen, placing just .05 seconds behind him.
“I feel epic,” the jubilant Norris shouted on team radio after his best qualifying result. “Probably one of the best laps I’ve done.”
In clinching the first of his three career podiums on the same track last year, Norris became the youngest British driver on a podium and third-youngest overall behind Lance Stroll and Verstappen.
The ultra-consistent Norris is the only driver to have scored points in all eight races so far. But he is cautious about his chances of challenging Red Bull and Mercedes for a first victory.
“We’re not as quick as them and a lot of things are not possible compared to them,” he said. “But we maximized our potential.”
Verstappen leads Hamilton 5-2 in poles this season and the pressure is on Hamilton, who trails Verstappen by 18 points and 4-3 for wins.
A bad day for Mercedes saw Valtteri Bottas qualifying in fifth.
Cool and overcast conditions had been forecast for the final practice and qualifying, which would have favored Mercedes, but warm weather and sporadic bursts of sunshine splashed the Red Bull ring.
One grandstand was packed with orange-shirted Dutch fans cheering on the 23-year-old Verstappen every time he drove past. Others sat on grass banks dotted around the 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit nestled in the Styrian mountains.
The Dutch will party Saturday night to celebrate Verstappen’s seventh career pole, in hopes of a 15th career win Sunday.
In the first section of qualifying, known as Q1, Verstappen showed his intent.
He topped the charts with Hamilton .26 seconds adrift and only fourth fastest behind two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso (Alpine) and Norris.
Hamilton moved to the top in Q2, only for the Dutch contingent to roar as Verstappen replaced him. He topped Q2 by .331 seconds from Hamilton and .449 from Bottas.
“I don’t have an answer,” Hamilton said “We were just not any quicker.”
But there were celebrations in the Williams garage as George Russell scraped it into Q3 with 10th place — quite an achievement in a car lacking genuine pace.
Williams pushed both Ferraris out of Q2, with Carlos Sainz Jr. placing 11th and Charles Leclerc 12th.
Earlier Saturday, Verstappen dominated the third and final practice.
The Red Bull driver finished .54 seconds ahead of Bottas and a sizable .69 in front of Hamilton.
Verstappen’s main time gains were in terms of straight-line speed — a familiar strength this season — and on corners 1 and 3.
Four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel was 10th for Aston Martin. The track announcer wished a happy birthday to the 34-year-old German before the session started.
Verstappen waited until nearly the halfway point of the hour-long run before coming out on track and rocketed up the leaderboard.
Earlier Saturday, Hamilton agreed to a two-year contract extension with Mercedes until the end of 2023.
He is having a tougher fight than many predicted because Red Bull has turned the tables on a Mercedes team that has dominated the past seven years.
“I don’t know if they have improved their car again this weekend,” Hamilton said. “But we haven’t and we have to keep working.”