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Sergio Pérez on pole for Saudi Arabian F1 GP after Max Verstappen falters | Formula One

Max Verstappen has repeatedly warned against believing his Red Bull team held all the cards in the opening rounds of the new Formula One season. It was a guarded stance that looked unnecessarily wary but the Dutchman’s caution proved all too prescient when he was forced to retire from qualifying at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. His teammate, Sergio Pérez, duly stepped up to take pole but the mechanical failure of the Red Bull is a first chink in the armour that will provide succour to the teams languishing in their wake.

Verstappen had yet to bettered in any session at the Jeddah Corniche circuit and looked nailed on to take pole until a driveshaft problem forced him to crawl back to the pits and climb dejectedly from his car. Having had transmission problems in Bahrain, serious questions will be asked at Red Bull as to whether there is an issue with their car’s design.

In final practice Verstappen had been a second clear of the next nearest team, Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin, but the world champion will now start the race from 15th on the grid. A mighty comeback will be required but it is far from out of the question. He came back repeatedly from midfield positions last year when he did not enjoy quite the pace advantage he has shown this weekend.

It may well be his teammate Pérez whom he is ultimately chasing and who demonstrated how competitive the Red Bull is. On the final hot runs in Q3 Pérez set the benchmark with a pace on the high-speed circuit, run for almost 80% of a lap at full throttle, that indicated how much raw grunt the Red Bull power unit is delivering. He was followed by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who was four-tenths back.

Pérez’s time of 1min 28.265sec proved enough to claim only the second pole of his career, having taken the top spot here in 2022. Leclerc did improve to take second and was only a tenth and a half back, showing some of the form Ferrari had hoped to demonstrate in Jeddah. However Leclerc has a 10-place grid penalty for taking his third electronic control unit of the season with only one race under his belt. Alonso continued a very successful opening to the season with third, only four tenths in arrears. Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz was in fifth.

For Mercedes’s George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, in fourth and eighth respectively, this was very much what the team had been expecting. Mercedes admitted after Bahrain that they had pursued the wrong design concept and have set about taking a new direction. Qualifying at Jeddah, certainly for Russell, was perhaps better than they had anticipated but he was still six-tenths off pole with Hamilton almost a second back, a stark confirmation of how far they have to go.

The one team among the front runners who will have enjoyed unalloyed pleasure at their performance, is the one that has only joined the big three for the first time this season. This was another superb achievement for Alonso and Aston Martin. Having taken third place at the season-opener in Bahrain, Alonso followed it up with a superb run in Saudi Arabia, while teammate Lance Stroll backed him up with a solid sixth place.

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That Alonso did so at Jeddah was of import for Aston. Bahrain is something of an outlier in performance terms but the high-speed challenge in Saudi Arabia was an altogether different test. Alonso had said how they performed here and at the next round in Australia would give a good indication of how competitive they might be across the season. On this form they have reason to be optimistic that they have, at the very worst, the third fastest car on the grid.

Nonetheless Red Bull are still in control. After Verstappen took a dominant pole and win at the opening round in Bahrain, expectations of another were confounded at Jeddah but Pérez did deliver another ominous display of commanding pace and control. The main concern to him and the team will be whether they have a fearsome but potentially fragile car.

Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were seventh and 10th for Alpine with Oscar Piastri ninth for McLaren.

Nico Hülkenberg and Kevin Magnussen were in 11th and 13th for Haas and Guanyu Zhou and Valtteri Bottas in 12th and 14th for Alfa Romeo.

Lando Norris clipped a wall in Q1 and was unable to continue qualifying with damage to his steering, finishing in 19th for McLaren. Yuki Tsunoda and Nyck de Vries were in 16th and 18th for AlphaTauri, with Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant in 17th and 20th for Williams.

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