Lewis Hamilton put Mercedes on pole position for the first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Saturday as Red Bull rival and Formula One leader Max Verstappen hit the wall at the last corner on his final flying lap.
Hamilton, eight points behind with two races to go, was joined on the front row by team-mate Valtteri Bottas after the floodlit qualifying session on the new super-fast Jeddah Corniche street circuit.
Verstappen, who needs to finish at least second in Sunday’s night race to have a chance of taking the title, qualified third with a question mark over his car’s gearbox and whether he risks a possible grid penalty.
“That was looking like the lap of the year,” said Red Bull boss Christian Horner of Verstappen’s effort until the moment of impact.
“It was a mighty, mighty lap. He was pulling something very special out of the bag.”
Verstappen said it was a “terrible” end to a session that promised so much.
Saudi Arabian GP: Verstappen paces field ahead of qualifying
“I knew the pace was there, and it showed at the end. I don’t really understand what happened, but I locked up. I still tried to keep the car on the track and keep going but clipped the rear and had to stop,” he said.
Hamilton, chasing a hat-trick of wins after victories in Brazil and Qatar that narrowed the gap to Verstappen, was delighted to be leading a front-row lockout.
“For us to get a one-two, I’m really proud of Valtteri and the men and women in our team who have just been working so hard. This is a great result,” said the Briton after the latest twist in a roller-coaster season of fluctuating fortunes.
The pole was the 103rd of Hamilton’s career and fifth of the season.
Qualifying crash dents hopes of early title party for Verstappen
Max Verstappen was left disappointed after a last-gasp mistake in the dying seconds of qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix cost him pole and dealt a blow to his chances of wrapping up a maiden Formula One title with a race to spare.
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He was comfortably on course to seize the fastest lap from title rival and provisional pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton until he pushed a touch too far, clouting the wall on the exit of the final corner after locking up on the way in, and was forced to settle for third place.
The contact broke Verstappen’s rear suspension and may have damaged his gearbox, which could cost him five places on the grid if it needs to be changed.
It also allowed Mercedes to lock out the front row, with Valtteri Bottas second alongside Hamilton.
“I was really enjoying it and then not to finish it is extremely disappointing, especially now, in this fight, you want to start first,” said Verstappen, who was 0.244 seconds ahead of Hamilton’s time when he crashed and instead ended up 0.142 seconds adrift of the Briton.
“I saw it was a good lap, I was three-tenths faster on my delta. I thought the last corner there might be still a bit to gain.
“I approached it like I always do in qualifying, but now somehow I just locked up, and I have to see if I actually braked later or not, for my feeling is I didn’t.”
Hamilton: Closing speeds at Jeddah approaching ‘danger zone’
Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points in the overall standings and can clinch the title on Sunday if he finishes in the top two with other permutations working in his favour.
But a third-place finish, with Hamilton first and scoring the extra point for fastest lap, would see the Briton draw level on points, setting up a winner-takes-all last-race duel in Abu Dhabi.
Verstappen is confident Red Bull have the pace to challenge Mercedes on Sunday and will be going for the win rather than damage limitation.
“Of course, I would have liked to start first,” he said. “Starting third is a bit more difficult but definitely not impossible.”