George Russell scored the first pole position of his career by charging to the top spot in the final seconds of qualifying at the Hungarian Grand Prix, after points leader Max Verstappen was forced to withdraw from Q3 with engine problems.
Mercedes had looked out of sorts all weekend, with poor balance on Friday and chronic tire temperature issue during wet Saturday practice, but the W13 switched it on in time for dry qualifying.
Russell wielded the machine to perfection. His first lap split the fancied Ferrari drivers for a provisional front row, but a sublime second lap shaved 0.6s off his personal best to pip Carlos Sainz to top spot by 0.044s, all without having set a single purple sector.
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“I’m over the moon,” he said. “Absolutely buzzing.
“Yesterday was probably the worst Friday of the season. We need to look into it and understand where that came from today.”
Despite being unclear about why his car was suddenly so quick, Russell said he expected to contend for victory on Sunday.
“At the end of the day there’s no points for qualifying,” he said. “We’re going to be absolutely going for it.”
The Ferrari drivers were taken aback to have been beaten to pole on a weekend long earmarked to be one of the team’s strongest. Sainz — who had teammate Charles Leclerc’s measure throughout qualifying — said he remained optimistic that his car’s race pace would be strong enough to get the job done on Sunday, though.
“I think we have the pace,” he said. “The start and the tire management will play a key role, like always.
“The Mercedes pace is a bit of an unknown. We’ll have to see how the race plays out tomorrow.”
Leclerc, 0.190s off the pace, said his priority was to discover why his car suddenly lacked one-lap performance.
“We’ll look into it,” he said. “We just need to understand what went on with the tires today, and I’m pretty sure we can come back tomorrow.”
Lando Norris qualified an excellent fourth at 0.392s adrift, beating both Alpine drivers, with Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso running around 0.3s further back.
Lewis Hamilton was forced to abandon his final flying lap due to a DRS failure. He’d been less than 0.2s slower than Russell after their first laps but slumped to seventh on the grid.
Valtteri Bottas qualified eighth for Alfa Romeo ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Verstappen endured a painful Q3. He locked up into Turn 2, spoiling his first lap, and suffered a lack of power on his second lap which he subsequently abandoned, leaving him 10th on the grid.
It was double pain for Red Bull Racing, coming after Sergio Perez was the shock knockout in Q2 in 11th. The Mexican had his first flying lap deleted for crossing track limits at Turn 5 — which replays showed was incorrect and it was subsequently re-instated, but it wouldn’t have been quick enough anyway — and complained that Kevin Magnussen was in his way at Turn 2 for his final attempt.
Zhou Guanyu qualified 12th ahead of Magnussen in his updated Haas car, while Lance Stroll beat teammate Mick Schumacher to 14th on the grid. Yuki Tsunoda will start 16th ahead of Alex Albon in 17th.
Sebastian Vettel pitched in with his mechanics to repair his crashed Aston Martin between FP3 and qualifying, but their efforts went minimally rewarded, with the German knocked out 18th and just 0.068s shy of safety.
Pierre Gasly was eliminated in a disappointing 19th after having his quickest time deleted for exceeding track limits at Turn 5.
Nicholas Latifi completed the grid for Williams in 20th after a mistake at the final corner.