JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, March 19 (AP): Sergio Perez stepped up for Red Bull to ensure the team started from the pole at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after a mechanical issue sidelined two-time defending world champion Max Verstappen.
Verstappen was fastest in all three practice sessions at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit but his qualifying effort was cut short Saturday when he radioed "I have a problem. Engine, engine problem,” during the second session.
The Dutchman drove to the pits, where a driveshaft issue was discovered, and Verstappen's qualifying effort was over.
It left Perez as the lone Red Bull representative in the final round of qualifying and he went on to win pole for the second consecutive year - the only two poles of his career.
"Max has been really strong the whole weekend, so hopefully we can have both cars up there,” Perez said. "You never know with these cars, reliability issues can hit you at any time.”
Verstappen will start 15th.
"The driveshaft broke ... It was annoying because the car was good up until then, I was comfortable in every session and every time I was on the track, I was quick, so for sure we could have fought for pole," Verstappen said.
"Instead, we now have a bit more work ahead of us. It is a long championship and we will stay positive. I think a win is tricky from that position, but I will try to score as many points as possible.”
Charles Leclerc qualified second for Ferrari but will drop 10 positions at the start of Sunday's race because of a grid penalty for exceeding the allotted electronics control unit on the car’s engine in the season-opening race.
Leclerc said even without the penalty he wasn't all that impressed with his qualifying effort because the entire grid is chasing Red Bull. Verstappen last year won a record 15 races, Perez added two victories and Red Bull claimed both the driver and constructors championships.
"The lap - I'm really, really happy. It was really on the limit,” Leclerc said. "On the other hand, I feel the Red Bull are quite far ahead and that is our goal, to beat them, so there is still a lot of work to do.”
The penalty to Leclerc pushes Fernando Alonso to the front row for the start after the Spaniard qualified third in his new Aston Martin ride. Alonso finished third in his season-opening debut race with Aston in Bahrain.
Is he in position to win his first F1 race since 2013?
"No, I think we are not in that position yet. I think on pure pace, Red Bull is in another league,” Alonso said. "I think we need to focus more on the other teams: Ferrari will be very strong, Mercedes they are strong, and also Alpine, they are fast here.
"I think our race is behind us. But we saw Max could not complete qualifying with a mechanical issue, so even if we focus on our mirrors and try to keep the people behind us, if anything happened in front, we will try to take the opportunity, for sure.”
George Russell qualified fourth for Mercedes - four spots ahead of teammate Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time champion qualified eighth.
"We just need to keep trying. No matter what changes we’ve been making, we’ve been struggling to extract the speed, and I just don’t feel properly connected to the car at the moment,” Hamilton said. "That is something we will work on to improve the confidence in the next races. George did a great job and he wasn’t that far off some of the cars at the front, so we just need to keep pushing.”
Carlos Sainz Jr. was fifth for Ferrari followed by Lance Stroll of Aston Martin. Esteban Ocon was seventh.
Oscar Piastri was ninth for McLaren and Pierre Gasly 10th for Alpine.
Logan Sargeant, the American rookie driving for Williams, was briefly atop the speed chart in the first qualifying group until his time was deleted for violating track limits. Sargeant's tire had briefly touched an area of track considered off limits and the FIA quickly deleted his lap.
Sargeant later spun in the qualifying group in his desperate push to not qualify last. Had his earlier lap not been deleted, Sargeant would have advanced into the second round of qualifying. He'll start 20th.
"I put in a very fast lap but it was deleted as I crossed the pitlane entry by a margin. There was no performance gain so it’s frustrating, but I still had two more laps to deliver and I didn’t, so my apologies go to the team,” Sargeant said. "Although I’ve given myself a lot more work than I needed to, I’m quite optimistic about (Sunday) and I’ll make it up to the team.”
Nyck de Vries missed Saturday morning practice with an engine problem then spun almost immediately at the start of qualifying, and Lando Norris of McLaren smacked the wall in the first qualifying group and had to go to the pits for repairs. It prevented him from advancing as his rookie teammate Piastri moved on to the third round for the first time in his career.
The Jeddah circuit is the second-longest track on the F1 circuit at 6.174 kilometers (3.836 miles) and was built alongside the Red Sea. It debuted as the penultimate race on the 2021 calendar and is considered the "fastest street track” on the schedule with average speeds exceeding 250 kmh (160 mph). - AP