Lewis Hamilton took pole for the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but only after this fascinating Formula One season once more delivered tense drama for the title protagonists. The world champion was on top but only because Max Verstappen pushed too hard and was left wondering what might have been over a damaged car, stranded on the track.
Hamilton had endured nervy moments before qualifying awaiting a steward’s decision in Jeddah, when the world champion’s hopes for a win and his championship ambitions hung in the balance. Cleared of any offences, however, he delivered with great execution, but it might so easily have belonged to Verstappen who clipped a wall on his last lap when on for taking pole. He was classified only in third behind Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
“It was intense but enjoyable,” said Hamilton, who described his car as being on a knife-edge. “This was heart in your mouth for all of us. If Max had finished his lap he would have been ahead.”
Verstappen has pushed hard all season and he was once more absolutely on the limit on his final lap. On the very edge for 26 corners it was nail-biting but superb only for him to take too much on the very final bend. For the title, these moments may prove vital with Hamilton’s attempt to take an eighth Formula One world championship still very much in his own hands.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Verstappen. “We had a good car, everything seemed to be coming together, in Q3 it was good but unfortunately I couldn’t finish the lap. At least it seems like we can fight here.”
It had been difficult to call between the two drivers throughout until the decisive minutes. Hamilton made an error on his first hot lap in Q3, briefly losing the rear, and had to abort his quick lap. He stayed out to put in another run and this time was clean. However Verstappen was immense on his first hot lap, threading the needle between the walls of this testing circuit with inch-perfect precision. He set a time of 1min 27.653sec, a fearsome target almost four-tenths up on Hamilton.
Hamilton went out first on the final runs and this time he was feeling the grip and was especially strong through the final two sectors, sweeping though the sequence of undulating left and right hand curves. He put in a 1min 27.511sec but Verstappen pushed in response and was on fire. He was over two-tenths up only to lock-up and brush the wall on the final corner. A disaster that may yet be compounded if he has to take a new gearbox because of damage and receive a grid penalty.
A win for Hamilton at Jeddah would guarantee the championship will head to a finale at Abu Dhabi and if Hamilton also scores fastest lap to a second place for Verstappen, the two rivals would go into the decider equal on points. Verstappen can still clinch the title in Saudi Arabia, albeit with that now looking like a major task. He leads Hamilton by eight points and can take it this weekend if he wins and scores the fastest lap and Hamilton finishes sixth or lower, if he wins without the fastest lap and Hamilton finishes seventh or lower, or if he outscores Hamilton by 18 points.
Certainly Hamilton holds the whip hand. With the narrow track and few passing points, making overtaking difficult, and the low tyre degradation auguring for a single-stop strategy, track position will be vital and Hamilton has the advantage of pole and his teammate at his back.
For an uneasy period before the session began, Hamilton’s fate had been subject to the deliberations of the stewards. He was summoned an hour before qualifying began for two separate offences they were investigating from Saturday’s final practice session. The first was for failing to slow under double-waved yellow flags and the second for impeding another driver. Verstappen was found to have failed to slow under waved yellows at the last round in Qatar and was given a five-place grid penalty.
However, the stewards ruled that the flag warning system had been triggered accidentally and warning lights had not been shown where Hamilton was on track and they took no further action. He was also given only a reprimand for the impeding incident because he had not been informed by his team that Nikita Mazepin was closing on him from behind.