Charles Leclerc gave Ferrari something to cheer about at the Red Bull Ring, with the Monegasque driver claiming his second career pole after a dominant qualifying display – although the Scuderia’s pleasure was kept in check by a mechanical issue that saw Sebastian Vettel fail to set a time in Q3.
Leclerc lapped the Austrian circuit in an incredible 1m 03.003s to establish a new track record, ending up 0.259s clear of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who could yet face a penalty after being called to the stewards for an alleged block on Kimi Raikkonen in Q1.
The Red Bull of Max Verstappen was third, the Dutchman lapping 0.436s off Leclerc’s pace to make it three different teams filling the first three places on the grid for the first time this season.
Valtteri Bottas was fourth in the second Mercedes, while an impressive showing from Haas’ Kevin Magnussen saw him go P5 – although the Dane is set to take a five-place grid drop for a new gearbox fitted ahead of qualifying.
Lando Norris enjoyed his third consecutive Q3 appearance and finished sixth for McLaren, ahead of the two Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi. Red Bull’s Pierre Gasly, meanwhile, ended up P9, ahead in Q3 only of the non-time setting Vettel, whose misfortune was confirmed by Ferrari as being linked to an issue with an air pressure line to the engine.
With the sun beating down on the Red Bull Ring and the temperatures up at 28C, the cars headed out for Q1. Ferrari raised eyebrows when Leclerc and Vettel led the session early doors, setting some rapid lap times despite being shod on the medium tyres.
They’d eventually finish P4 and P5, having contentedly parked their cars after their first flying efforts, while the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, and the two Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were all forced to run again, eventually ending up P1, P2 and P3 – Verstappen delighting the strong Dutch contingent in the crowd.
Down at the other end of the timesheets, it was a disastrous session for Racing Point with both Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll dropping out in 16th and 17th, with Stroll extending his Q1 exit streak to a very unlucky 13.
George Russell and Robert Kubica were, as expected, the slowest qualifiers, while Daniil Kvyat was 18th, the Russian encountering a horrible moment on his final push lap as he came around Turn 9 to find a very slow-moving George Russell on the apex. “I could have killed him,” screamed a shaken Kvyat to his Toro Rosso team.
The net result was that he was out, however, with the stewards planning to look at the incident after the session – while they were also set to examine a near-miss between Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen and Hamilton up at Turn 3, which angered Raikkonen enough to make him flick Hamilton the bird!
Respite for those five in the drop zone, however, was that they would move up the order when Carlos Sainz and Alexander Albon took up their back-of-the-grid positions after taking new power unit elements.
Tyre strategy was at the forefront of everyone’s minds as the second segment of qualifying began, with the question of who could – or would – try and get out of Q2 on medium tyres.
Ferrari, quite simply, didn’t bother, nailing their colours to the mast by heading out for both of their Q2 runs on the softs, while Mercedes made it through on mediums, along with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, to establish an interesting strategic make-up for tomorrow’s race.
More pressing, for the midfield runners at least, was who would make it through to the final segment of qualifying. Two drivers who wouldn’t were the Renault pairing of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo, ending P12 and P14 respectively (before Hulkenberg’s five-place grid drop for taking on Renault’s Spec B internal combustion engine) to continue the team’s tricky weekend.
Joining them in the drop zone was the Haas of Romain Grosjean, who damaged a front wing on the exit of Turn 10 before ending P11, while Albon was 13th and Sainz 15th ahead of their grid drops.
Good news, then for the likes of McLaren’s Lando Norris, the two Alfa Romeos of Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen – although the Dane would take a five-place penalty for a new gearbox fitted ahead of the session.
The lights went green for the final segment of qualifying and nine cars headed out on track – with the one, very notable exception being the #5 Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Television cameras had picked up an FIA and a Ferrari representative in heated conversation between Q2 and the start of Q3 – and as Vettel plopped his steering wheel onto the SF90’s chassis and climbed out, it became clear that the problem – later revealed to be an air pressure line to the engine – was terminal.
That robbed Ferrari of a potential rear-gunner should Leclerc claim pole – but did Mercedes have something in hand to counter the Ferraris’ impressive Saturday pace up till now? The answer was, quite simply, no, with Leclerc heading the times after the first set of Q3 runs, only for the Monegasque to channel his love of the Red Bull Ring into an even better final effort to leave him over two and a half tenths clear of Hamilton and establish a new track record – while Hamilton had the Raikkonen investigation hanging over him to check any joy at being on the front row at the end of the session.
Verstappen delighted his travelling fans by closing out third place on the grid, while Bottas would have been less happy to wind up over half a second off the leading pace at a track where he’s been on pole for the previous two years.
Star of Q3 outside of the top three teams, however, was Kevin Magnussen, who narrowly led a similarly impressive Lando Norris, those two again just ahead of Raikkonen, Giovinazzi and, more surprisingly, Pierre Gasly in the second Red Bull – with Sebastian Vettel, obviously, failing to set a time.
So Ferrari secure their second pole in three races – but with potentially big issues to sort out for Vettel overnight, the Scuderia would doubtless be keeping their excitement over besting Mercedes under control for the moment, while a fascinating contest between the two squads, and a Red Bull set to have decent race pace, lies in wait.
Lights go out at 14:10 tomorrow at the Red Bull Ring, with the 2019 Austrian Grand Prix set to be run under a fierce heat, with the temperatures expected to be at the 28 degree Celsius mark. And the action should be just as hot on the track as well, with a soft-shod Ferrari and a medium-shod Ferrari set to wage battle.