Lewis Hamilton got the job done when it mattered in a scintillating Emilia Romagna Grand Prix qualifying session, beating Red Bull’s Sergio Perez by just 0.036 at Imola, with Max Verstappen inside a tenth of a second of pole in third.
There was nothing to seperate Mercedes and Red Bull heading into the second qualifying session of the 2021 campaign, with both teams saying the other were favourites for P1 and playing down their own chances.
It was initially Valtteri Bottas who looked the most comfortable out on a track where he dominated all three segments of the one-hour shoot-out last time out at Imola, but he didn’t deliver in Q3 as his world champion team mate rose to the top of the pile with a brilliant first lap in qualifying.
The seven-time world champion failed to improve on his second run, and that pole looked under threat as Lando Norris set a purple first sector and then a purple second to have at least a front row in his grasp. But he lost time in the final sector and though he went second, his time was deleted for exceeding track limits.
That allowed Sergio Perez, who was getting quicker and quicker as the session went on, to slot into a brilliant second, securing his first-ever front row starts in his 193rd Grand Prix start. His Red Bull team mate Max Verstappen slotted into third, outqualified by a team mate (without any penalties/red flag) for the first time since Daniel Ricciardo left the team at the end of 2018.
Ferrari, who brought a new floor to Imola a race earlier than planned, have shown impressive one-lap pace all weekend, with Charles Leclerc delivering on that potential with an impressive fourth, beating AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly to the position for the second successive race.
Daniel Ricciardo looked to be struggling through practice, and looked the slower of the two McLarens throughout qualifying, but ended up higher on the grid with sixth, with Norris’s second-best lap only good enough for seventh.
Last year’s pole-sitter Bottas was a disappointing eighth, ending up outside the top-seven for the second time in the last six races, with Esteban Ocon the leading Alpine in ninth – having got knocked out in Q1 in Bahrain – and Lance Stroll closing out the top 10 for Aston Martin.
AlphaTauri looked in fine shape early in the Emilia Romagna weekend, but their team boss Franz Tost was left with his head in his hands on the pit wall when rookie Yuki Tsunoda got it all wrong at the Variante Alta and clattered into the barrier, bringing out the red flag.
The Japanese driver escaped unharmed, but there was significant damage to the rear of his AT02, and it means he’ll start either last or from the pit lane on Sunday afternoon. His team mate Pierre Gasly put the pressure on himself when he had his first lap time deleted for exceeding track limits, once the session got back under way, but then eased through to Q2 with his next lap.
Mercedes were the class of the field, with Bottas – who was fastest in Q1 and Q2 before taking pole at Imola last year – was the quickest of the two, with Lando Norris a very impressive third ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Elsewhere, Williams got both cars into Q2 for the first time since last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, with Nicholas Latifi bouncing back from his crash in Saturday morning practice to ease through with George Russell sneaking in, too.
There was bad news for Alfa Romeo, with both cars getting the boot early doors. Antonio Giovinazzi was furious with traffic as he failed to improve on his final run and he’ll start 17th, behind team mate Kimi Raikkonen but ahead of the Haas duo of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.
Knocked out: Raikkonen, Giovinazzi, Schumacher, Mazepin, Tsunoda
The Mercedes pair and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen were so assured of their pace, they were the only ones to run the mediums in Q2 in a bid to start the race on that compound, which meant they didn’t challenge the top of the timesheets.
Instead it was Norris who impressed once again, after a strong Q1 outing, initially going quickest before being usurped by Perez – also on softs – by just 0.002.
Ferrari looked quick on one-lap pace, with Charles Leclerc going third quickest, and his team mate Carlos Sainz was set to join him, only to attack the kerb too aggressively at the chicane, which cost him heavily and meant he didn’t progress, ending the session 11th.
George Russell was a very impressive 12th, just a tenth off Q3, with Sebastian Vettel having another tough session, first having his time deleted for exceeding track limits, then failing to get it together when it mattered on his next run to extend his run of missing Q3 to 15 Grands Prix.
Latifi was three tenths adrift of Russell in a career-best 14th, with Fernando Alonso outqualified by a team mate for the first time since the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, ending a run of 27 consecutive races.
Knocked out: Sainz, Russell, Vettel, Latifi, Alonso
Hamilton set an impressive benchmark with his opening salvo in Q3, with Verstappen and Perez slotting in just behind, and Norris confirming McLaren’s strong potential with a fourth.
The Briton failed to improve next time around, opening the door for an attack from elsewhere. Perez was flying – and it looked too close to call only for the Mexican to slot into second and his team mate Verstappen also just falling short.
There were celebrations in the McLaren garage when Norris crossed the line for second, only for his time to then get deleted for a track limits infringement, dropping him well down the field to seventh.
It was the closest qualifying session in years, with the top eight all managing 1m14s times and separated by just half a second, with seven different manufacturers featuring in the top 10.
The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix begins at 15:00 local time, which is 14:00 GMT. Hamilton may well have the best starting position, but he has a fight to keep on to pole with two hungry Red Bulls just behind and his team mate Bottas miles behind in eighth.