Better late than never,” said Max Verstappen’s engineer as the Dutchman secured the first pole position of his career, at his 93rd attempt, with a scintillating performance in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix to become Formula 1’s 100th pole-sitter.
Verstappen has looked mighty all weekend, but recent history has suggested that the Honda-powered RB15 hasn’t quite had the power to fight with Mercedes and Ferrari on a Saturday afternoon. But that was certainly not the case at the Hungaroring.
Verstappen set a commanding benchmark with his Q3 first lap and then improved by a couple of tenths on his second run to put pole position out of reach of any of his rivals. Valtteri Bottas, who has appeared to struggle all weekend, was second for Mercedes, 0.018s off the pace.
That was Red Bull’s third pole in the hybrid era, coming after Monaco 2016, Monaco 2018 and Mexico 2018 – all taken by Daniel Ricciardo, and Honda’s first since Australia 2006.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton didn’t quite have the pace to challenge for the front row, but he’ll line up third, having comfortably beaten the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque had a stressful start to the session when he clattered the barrier, breaking his rear wing. But fortunately the damage was not so severe, allowing him to continue.
Team mate Sebastian Vettel was just 0.028s adrift in fifth, with Pierre Gasly taking sixth in the second Red Bull. Lando Norris was the best of the rest, the McLaren driver having the edge over team mate Carlos Sainz all weekend and beating him by half a tenth in qualifying.
Haas’s Romain Grosjean and Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen completed the top 10, while Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo made a shock Q1 exit and George Russell delivered Williams’ best performance of the season with a brilliant 16th, just a fraction away from reaching Q2 for the first time in his career.
Hopes were high of an exciting qualifying session after three different teams occupied the top three places in FP3, separated by just 0.082s – and the early signs were good. Verstappen set a blistering pace, ending three-tenths quicker than anyone else, with Bottas his nearest challenger, the Finn doing a couple of flying laps to get his best lap time.
Leclerc looked pretty handy in the Ferrari and set a time that would have comfortably been good enough to get through to Q2, but he opted to go again. A purple middle sector suggested he would go top of the pops, but then he spun at the final corner, hitting the barrier rear wing-first and reasonably hard.
He retreated to the pits, with Ferrari mechanics engulfing the car as they began assessing the damage. Out on track, Russell was flying, the Williams driver looking set to make a shock first maiden appearance in Q2 with a flurry of consistently quick laps as the team appeared closer to the field than at any other point this year.
But Nico Hulkenberg got him at the death, sneaking ahead by less than a tenth of a second for Renault. Nonetheless it was a tremendous performance from the Briton, a shot in the arm for Williams as he out-qualified Racing Point’s Sergio Perez, Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, Racing Point’s Lance Stroll and his team mate Robert Kubica.
Replays showed Ricciardo caught traffic on his final flier, the Australian squabbling for clear air with Perez, while Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi was handed a three-place grdi drop post-session for impeding Stroll.
Knocked out: Russell, Perez, Ricciardo, Stroll, Kubica
Medium tyres were the compound of choice for the frontrunners in the second part of qualifying, with Hamilton setting the early pace as Mercedes appeared to have turned their engines up given their more impressive speed in the quick first sector that Ferrari have owned so far this weekend.
Verstappen put Red Bull second, only a few thousandths adrift, with Bottas less than a tenth further back. Leclerc slotted into fourth, his Ferrari team changing his damaged rear wing and sending him back out, with team mate Vettel a fraction adrift in fifth. Norris, who looked mighty in final practice, outpaced Red Bull’s Gasly to go sixth on the soft tyres.
Red Bull sent Gasly back out on another set of medium tyres, but he only improved fractionally and was jumped by both Sainz and Grosjean. Fortunately, he scraped through in ninth. While Grosjean looked strong, his team mate Kevin Magnussen, running the updated spec, was down in 15th.
Knocked out: Hulkenberg, Albon, Kvyat, Giovinazzi and Magnussen
Bottas, who had very little running after an engine issue in first practice, sprung a surprise as he pipped Hamilton after the first runs to go top of the pile, but then Verstappen’s loyal fans erupted when the Red Bull driver went quickest by nearly two-tenths.
There was tension in the closing stages as Leclerc lit up the timesheets and was up on Verstappen’s leading time after the first two sectors. But as has happened all weekend, the Scuderia lost bags of time in the low-speed final sector.
It was largely irrelevant, though, because Verstappen was absolutely on it behind him and was not to be denied as he went even quicker, crossing the line to become the first Dutchman in F1’s history to take pole on a track where he had never previously started in the top three.
Bottas pushed him hard but just missed out with team mate Hamilton failing to make the front row for only the second time this season. Leclerc’s fourth place meant he out-qualified Vettel for the fifth race in a row, while Gasly ended up 0.878s slower than team mate Verstappen in sixth.
Norris secured his fifth top-eight start in six races with both McLarens making it into the top eight for only the second time this year, while it’s a second consecutive top 10 start for Grosjean.
But the day belonged to Verstappen – the fourth youngest pole-sitter in history – and Red Bull, who would have marked Hungary’s tight and twisty Hungaroring out as one of the circuits they had a strong chance of winning ahead of the season.
Given their recent run of form – Verstappen has won two of the last three races – it’s going to take a mighty performance from Mercedes and Ferrari to stop them converting. But given how unpredictable the last three Grands Prix have been, anything can happen.
Lights go out at 15:10 local time tomorrow in Budapest with the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix set to be fought out over 70 laps. Can Verstappen convert, or will Mercedes or Ferrari frustrate his orange army?