Max Verstappen holds off the Carlos Sainz Jr. comeback in F1 Australian GP qualifying

“Finally that car looks dialed in when it matters most.”

Throughout the first two qualifying sessions, and after each of their first laps in Q3, it looked as if it was going to be Ferrari’s day. Carlos Sainz Jr. posted the first lap of Q3 and it was a quick one, a lap nearly matched by teammate Charles Leclerc. That gave Ferrari an early 1-2 atop the timing sheets in Q3, and the Tifosi were dreaming of a front-row lockout.

Someone forgot to tell Max Verstappen.

Because before the Ferrari garage truly had a chance to celebrate, Verstappen came across the line with a time that put him on provisional pole, prompting Alex Jacques to issue the above proclamation on F1TV regarding Verstappen, and his RB20.

Still, there was time left in Q3, enough time for each driver to bolt on a fresh set of soft tires and make one more charge on the grid. Could Ferrari mount a comeback, and deny Verstappen another pole position?

They could not, as Verstappen made it a third pole position in a row,

It was a session reminiscent of Monaco a season ago. During qualifying on the streets of Monte Carlo last season — where qualifying is the whole ballgame — the field threw everything they had at Verstappen, with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon posing the biggest threats. But when he needed that one huge lap, Verstappen was able to deliver, putting himself to the front of the field.

“Yeah it was a bit unexpected today in qualifying but very happy with Q3,” said Verstappen to Alex Brundle after qualifying. “We managed to be there at the end, so very happy with that.”

“[Ferrari] seems very quick, so we’ll find out tomorrow,” added Verstappen.

That ability to respond to challenges, and to turn back the threats that come his way, is part of the brilliance of Verstappen. Of his many incredible traits as a driver, that might be his greatest of all.

So as quick as Ferrari might be tomorrow, we can expect Verstappen to have yet another answer.

Here are the full qualifying results, as well as some more winners and losers from Saturday’s qualifying session in Melbourne.

Winner: Carlos Sainz Jr.

From hospital row, to the front row.

If you would have said two weeks ago that Carlos Sainz Jr. was going to be on the front row in Melbourne, it would have been viewed with some skepticism.

But there he was, putting the pressure on Verstappen just weeks after undergoing an emergency appendectomy and missing out on the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Frankly, just the fact that he was back driving was a massive accomplishment, but to put his car on the front row — and truly challenge Verstappen for pole position — is an incredible testament to Sainz the athlete, and competitor.

“Very happy to be here, very happy to be challenging the Red Bulls this weekend,” said Sainz to Alex Brundle after Q3. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m not in my most comfortable state when I am driving out there, but I can get it done.”

He certainly did on Saturday.

Winner: Alexander Albon

Every time an F1 driver takes to the track, the pressure of the world is upon them.

That pressure was probably magnified for Alexander Albon on Saturday in Melbourne.

After a hard shunt in FP1 on Friday, Albon was unable to participate in FP2 as Williams worked late into the night — including violating curfew — to try and get his FW46 ready for Saturday. When that became impossible, Team Principal James Vowles was forced to make an impossible decision. Due to delays in developing the FW46 the team did not have a backup chassis ready, meaning they had just one car at their disposal for the rest of the weekend.

Vowles then made the call. Despite Albon being the one who crashed, he was going to drive the one car they had, bumping Logan Sargeant into spectator mode.

Much will be written and said in the coming weeks about what that situation, and decision, means for the team as well as Sargeant. But at the most basic level it meant this: Williams pinned their entire weekend on Albon’s shoulders.

Could he deliver?

At first blush in qualifying it looked like he might not. Albon went out early in Q1 looking to lay down a banker lap. But that lap time was immediately deleted for exceeding track limits. However, by the time the dust had settled in Q1, Albon was safely through to Q2, with room to spare.

He could not find more magic in Q2, as he finished the session in P12, on the outside looking in when it came to Q3. But given the pressure he was under — and the reaction there would have been had he failed to deliver — this was a tremendous performance.

A performance that rewarded the faith shown in him by his team.

Loser: Lewis Hamilton

The signs were there earlier in the week.

After the first two practice sessions, Lewis Hamilton expressed a lack of confidence in the W15. That seemed to be shared by Team Principal Toto Wolff, who shared his own frustration with the car. The team conceded that they had experimented with the setup for Hamilton’s W15 during FP2, which could have explained the frustration.

Given Hamilton’s shocking exit in Q2, however, maybe they never sorted out the issues. At a track where he has seen ten podiums in his F1 career, and enjoyed tremendous success with one-lap pace, Hamilton will now start outside the points on Sunday.

There are also some worrying signs for the team.

After all, they were the sixth-fastest car in Q2 with Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Aston Martin, and even the VCARB of Yuki Tsunoda ahead of both George Russell — who finished P10 in Q2 — and Hamilton. The one-lap pace from the W15 just is not there right now.

As we have seen before, the team can make up some ground with their race pace. We saw that two weeks ago in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. But this was not the session that Hamilton, and Mercedes, were hoping for.

Winner: Esteban Ocon

For the first time this season, Alpine saw a driver advance to Q2.

While “Estie Bestie’s through to Q2 baby” does not have the same impact has Esteban Ocon’s celebration after securing a podium in Monaco a season ago, it is still a very good result for a team that has struggled out of the gate.

In fact, as Ocon crossed the line and was informed he was through, Ocon celebrated over the radio, even mentioning a “victory lap” for the team.

The joy was short-lived, however, as Ocon could only place P15 as he was the slowest car in Q2. Still, after seeing both Alpines start at the back of the field in each of the first two races of the season, seeing Ocon advance to Q2 is at a minimum signs of progress for the team.

Loser: Daniel Ricciardo

Absolute heartbreak for the hometown hero.

On his final push lap in Q1, the Visa Cash App RB F1 Team driver put together a solid lap that was good enough for Q2. But at the exit of Turn 4, Ricciardo crossed the white line, and his time was eventually deleted for exceeding track limits.

Instead of moving onto Q2, his day was done.

The mistake comes as Ricciardo is coming under increased pressure at VCARB, thanks in no small part to recent comments from Red Bull Senior Advisor Dr. Helmut Marko. With speculation growing about the driver transfer market — and the future of Sergio Pérez alongside Max Verstappen at the senior team — Ricciardo himself has called a return to Red Bull the “fairytale ending.”

But in recent days Marko has turned his sights on Ricciardo, noting that “Ricciardo will have to come up with something soon.”

A deleted lap time, and an Q1 exit, is not what Marko was looking for.

Winner: Yuki Tsunoda

While there was frustration on one side of the VCARB garage, there was joy on the other.

Yuki Tsunoda pushed through to Q3 for the second-straight race, eventually qualifying in P8. That gives Tsunoda a 3-0 advantage in head-to-head qualifying against teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

With both drivers eying a move to the senior team next season, it might be fair to say that at this point, Tsunoda has the advantage.

That we can say that given everything that unfolded at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix might be the biggest surprise of all.

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