Charles Leclerc claimed pole position for the Australian Grand Prix with an exceptional lap for Ferrari in Melbourne to beat Red Bull’s Max Verstappen into second place. Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Pérez was in third, with McLaren’s Lando Noris taking an excellent fourth place. Mercedes continued to struggle with Lewis Hamilton in fifth and George Russell in sixth at a circuit where they have claimed pole for the last six consecutive meetings. It was a result however they would take having looked off the pace all weekend.
Leclerc put in a superlative lap at Albert Park in what is a welcome return to Australia, with the meeting having not been held here for the past two years because of the pandemic.
On his first hot runs in Q3 Leclerc, who has looked in fine form all weekend, set the pace with a 1minute 18.239sec time but it was only one-tenth up on Pérez, who had been very competitive throughout qualifying. Verstappen had also looked strong but for a small lockup that cost him time on what was a formidable lap, one-thousandth off Pérez. The session was stopped when Fernando Alonso crashed out at turn 11 after a hydraulic failure on his Alpine. He will start from 10th place.
The session resumed after 10 minutes with the track cooling as the shadows lengthened in Melbourne. Pérez pushed on his final hot lap and came so close, within one thousandth of Leclerc’s time, while Verstappen put together a clean lap to edge into the top spot. Yet Leclerc had even more, his final lap was immense, clocking 1m 17.868sec to leave his rivals reeling, a full three-10ths up on Verstappen.
Mercedes had sent Hamilton and Russell out early to warm their tyres up and for the first time in the weekend their car managed to look at least able to push, with Hamilton and Russell putting in their best times on their final laps but notably they were still a full second down on the leaders.
It is Leclerc’s 11th pole position, his first in Australia and Ferrari’s second this season after they took the top spot in Bahrain and went on to convert it to a one-two finish.
For Ferrari it is a moment to savour at a track where they have not taken pole since Kimi Raikkonen last did so in 2007, which was also the last time the Scuderia won the drivers’ championship. It ends a remarkable streak for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes at Albert Park. Hamilton has taken a record eight poles here including the last six in a row. This year with Mercedes still off the pace, Leclerc’s challenge is from a surging Red Bull and he did superbly to see them off on a circuit where they had looked strong.
The pole gives Leclerc every chance to extend his championship advantage in what is developing into a fierce title fight with Red Bull. He currently leads on 45 points, with Sainz in second on 33 and Verstappen third on 25.
Sunday’s race promises to be no pushover however. Overtaking has traditionally been very tricky at Albert Park but there is optimism that changes to the circuit this year should make for a more competitive race. Various corners have been reprofiled while the chicane at what was turns nine and 10 has been removed, allowing a long run along the lake to the challenging fast chicane at the back of the circuit. The track has been resurfaced for the first time since its first race in 1996 with what is hoped to be a grippy, abrasive surface.
Daniel Ricciardo was in seventh for McLaren, Esteban Ocon in eighth for Alpine and Carlos Sainz ninth for Ferrari. Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda were in 11th and 13th for AlphaTauri. Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou in 12th and 14th for Alfa Romeo, with Mick Schumacher in 15th for Haas.
Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll both crashed their Aston Martins in final practice but the team managed to repair their cars. Stroll however set no time and was in 19th with Sebastian Vettel in 18th. Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed out in Q3 after hitting Stroll while attempting to pass him and will start from 19th. The incident is under investigation. His Williams teammate Alex Albon finished 16th, with Kevin Magnussen in 17th for Haas.