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Verstappen claims pole at rainy Spanish GP

Max Verstappen Carlos Sainz Lando Norris Max Verstappen Carlos Sainz Lando Norris - The Canadian Press

MONTMELO, Spain (AP) — Max Verstappen stormed his way to pole position at the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday while his top rivals struggled on the damp track and will start well behind the two-time defending champion.

Verstappen didn’t even need to use all of his time in qualifying after he set an untouchable flying lap. Red Bull brought him back to the garage while his rivals fought for the rest of the spots.

“I knew there was quite a bit of potential in the car and that I could push it to the limit, and it was pretty quick,” Formula One’s points leader said. “Then I went out again for the second one, and it would have been even better, but I think the (team) got a bit excited and told me to abort.”

Red Bull teammate — and Verstappen’s top challenger — Sergio Pérez will start Sunday’s race from 11th place on the grid. Last weekend, Pérez crashed in qualifying for Monaco and had to start from the back.

Verstappen and Pérez have swept all six races this season. Verstappen leads Pérez by 39 points.

Fernando Alonso, third in the standings at 51 points behind Verstappen, could do no better than eighth for Aston Martin. It looks like his legions of Spanish fans may have to keep waiting for him to end his decade-long wait for a F1 win.

Carlos Sainz of Ferrari gave the home crowd something to cheer about though by producing the second-best time right ahead of a surprising Lando Norris in third in his McLaren. Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes will start from fourth.

Verstappen's fourth pole position on the season gives him 24 in his career.

“I have a lot of great memories here and hopefully we can have another one tomorrow,” he said.

Verstappen showed in 2016 that he would one day become a force in F1 when he became the youngest race winner ever at age 18 in his debut for Red Bull at the Spanish GP. The Dutchman also won here last year.

He is poised for another race win given his car’s performance and the precedent of pole-sitters winning 23 of 32 races at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

Charles Leclerc took pole last year but this time he will start from 19th after his Ferrari was perplexingly slow. After saying he had a problem with the “rear” of his car, Leclerc briefly pitted before going out for one last lap in the closing minute of the first qualifying session that just was not near enough.

George Russell also had trouble and will start 12th right behind Pérez after complaining that his Mercedes was bouncing and he “had no confidence with tires.” He and teammate Hamilton, who was fifth, even touched at one point while trying to launch flying laps, causing bits of one of their cars to fly off.

“It was just a misunderstanding, a lack of communication in the garage during an intense moment so no one is to blame," Mercedes team principle Toto Wolff said.

Pierre Gasly had posted the fourth-best time, but he was given two three-place grid penalties for two incidents of reckless driving, knocking the Alpine driver back to 10th.

Rain during the third practice earlier Saturday left some wet patches that caused several cars to spin into the gravel early in qualifying.

Alonso and Pérez both veered off course.

Alonso took the blame for banging up the floor of his Aston Martin by grinding it through the gravel.

“This cost us some crucial lap time,” he said. “It’s a shame as I think we had the pace to be fighting at the front. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow. … The fans have been amazing, so we’ll be trying to put on a show for them in the race.”

Tens of thousands of Spanish supporters have turned out to cheer for Alonso, a two-time champion who after many years of mediocre cars and a stint away from F1 is enjoying a resurgence at age 41 with his new Aston Martin team.

After several street circuits this season, the Spanish GP’s traditional racing track is considered by many teams as a great opportunity to introduce new upgrades and see the real pecking order of the grid.

Mercedes and Ferrari are hoping to make strides on Sunday thanks to tweaks to their cars. The two traditional powerhouses have only one podium finish each.

The 4.6-kilometer (2.8-mile) Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is well known to drivers thanks it staging Spanish GPs for three decades and, until this year, preseason testing in winter.

But the track layout has undergone a modification to its last sector after the removal of a chicane – back-to-back sharp turns that forced drivers to slow down. That leaves two high-speed turns before the final straight in a return to a layout used until 2006.

“It is a lot more enjoyable to drive,” Verstappen said. “Coming into the last corner brings a smile to me face. It really brings the car alive.”


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