Leclerc beats Verstappen to pole in Australia

Charles Leclerc took pole position for Ferrari in crash-laden qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday, pipping Red Bull’s world champion Max Verstappen on the upgraded Albert Park circuit.

Leclerc saved his best for last, his flying lap of one minute 17.868 seconds nearly three-tenths of a second quicker than Verstappen, leaving the Dutchman in a funk over the performance of his RB18 car.

Verstappen finished ahead of third quickest team mate Sergio Perez, with McLaren’s Lando Norris to start fourth on the grid.

Leclerc’s 11th career pole and second of the season set up another Sunday showdown with Verstappen, the pair’s rivalry having dominated the early races.

Leclerc said he managed to “put everything together” in the third and final phase of qualifying.

“The car is nice to drive … We were again quite surprised by our pace in qualifying,” said the Monagesque.

“We are again very close with Red Bull. So it’s going to be close racing tomorrow.”

Verstappen said he was having a “terrible” weekend, struggling with balance.

“I didn’t really feel good in the car the whole weekend so far…. Of course second is still a good result,” he added.

“As a team we want more.”

Perez’s grid position is in some doubt, having been summoned by stewards for allegedly failing to slow down when a yellow flag came out.

Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, whose run of six consecutive poles at Albert Park was broken, will start fifth ahead of sixth-placed team mate George Russell in an encouraging session for Mercedes, who have struggled this season with a bouncy car.

However, they may end up battling McLaren to be the “best of the rest” after Ferrari and Red Bull.

McLaren’s home hero Daniel Ricciardo will start seventh on the grid ahead of Alpine’s eighth-placed Esteban Ocon.

It was a tough afternoon for many of the drivers, with two red flags from big crashes and the sun low in the sky, impairing vision in the second phase of qualifying.

Adding to complications, race officials decided to remove one of the track’s four DRS zones, which encourage over-taking, due to safety reasons after reviewing Friday’s practice.

Twice world champion Fernando Alonso crashed out at the start of the final phase of qualifying, thudding his Alpine car into the wall at turn 11.

“I lost the hydraulics and couldn’t change gear,” he lamented on the team radio before his car was hauled off track by a crane.

Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll collided with Williams’s Nicholas Latifi at turn five in the first phase, putting both the Canadians out of action.

Latifi, who has now crashed in three of the last four race weekends, tried to overtake Stroll after letting him pass but ending up ploughing into him as Stroll veered to the right.

Stroll raged in an expletive-laden rant on the team radio, but Latifi blamed him for the mishap.

“He just turned into me once I was alongside him,” he told Sky.

Both were summoned to a hearing with race stewards.

Stroll and team mate Sebastian Vettel earlier crashed out in the final practice session on Saturday.

Stroll’s qualifying mishap gave his team extra time to fix Vettel’s car and the four-times world champion finally emerged with two minutes left to post the second-slowest lap.

The German will start 17th on the grid, knocked out of the first phase along with Stroll, Williams’ Alex Albon and Latifi, and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen.

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