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Max Verstappen battles back to claim Emilia-Romagna F1 GP pole
F1 Sport

Max Verstappen battles back to claim Emilia-Romagna F1 GP pole

Max Verstappen pulled off a comeback he believed was his best for more than five years to claim pole position for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, delivering a superb lap under immense pressure that raised him to stand alongside Ayrton Senna with a record eighth consecutive pole.

In the year of the 30th anniversary of Senna’s death at Imola, Verstappen had to dig deep after a torrid weekend during which he and Red Bull have struggled with the car’s grip and balance. He had been out of sorts and down on pace but made it count when it mattered against a huge charge from the McLarens of Oscar Piastri in second and Lando Norris in third, although Piastri was later given a three-place grid penalty for impeding Kevin Magnussen.

Verstappen’s eight poles in a row, starting with Abu Dhabi last year, match the record Senna set between the Spanish Grand Prix in 1988 and the US Grand Prix in 1989. Equalling Senna on the weekend when the three-time champion is being honoured clearly meant a lot to the Dutchman. “It’s 30 years since he passed away,” said Verstappen. “So it is very special. I am very pleased to get pole and in a way it’s a nice memory to him. He was an incredible F1 driver, especially in qualifying.”

Finding the right setup proved testing at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, with Red Bull’s toils leaving Verstappen admitting that by the close of final practice he felt making it to the top five in qualifying would have been a good result. To then claim pole was a step up he felt was beyond him. “It’s been a while since I felt we have been that far off,” he said. “It must be at least five or six years since we have been able to turn it around like that.”

He had the edge but only just as the resurgent McLaren team once more demonstrated their potential to be the team best placed to challenge Red Bull. After Norris’s win at the last round in Miami, they were flying again, hounding the Dutchman.

Max Verstappen between the McLaren duo of Oscar Piastri and Britain’s Lando NorrisView image in fullscreen

Verstappen set the benchmark in Q3 with a 1min 14.869sec lap but with Norris just seven-hundredths down. The blood is up at McLaren, and Verstappen’s unbeaten streak of poles this season looked under threat in the tense final laps. He knew he had to improve and duly did with a 1:14.746 lap, notably better in the second sector where he had struggled. Yet he was taken to the wire, Norris first barrelling in just nine-hundredths back, with Piastri then claiming second only seven-hundredths in arrears, before his penalty promoted his teammate to the front row.

McLaren’s climb back to the front of the grid has been long, slow and sometimes painful but with the raft of upgrades they have on this car now proving themselves, they are back in the game. However Imola is an altogether different prospect to Miami. It is a majestic circuit, a glorious place to watch racing and much loved by drivers, but it is narrow, testing and with little margin for error, overtaking is a tricky task at best. Pole is crucial and Verstappen has it, as Norris noted.

“The whole weekend the car has been performing well but I don’t expect us to have an easy day on Sunday,” he said. “To overtake here it’s pretty impossible, so that’s our first task. But if we can pressure them and have a good performance like Miami we can be optimistic.”

The fans returned to the circuit with huge enthusiasm after last year’s meeting was cancelled when floods ravaged the region; Emilia-Romagna is still recovering and the track enjoyed a celebratory atmosphere after considerable hardship. However, Ferrari’s hoped-for home challenge fell short with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in fourth and fifth, two-tenths back but promoted to third and fourth, while George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were sixth and eighth for Mercedes.

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Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo were seventh and ninth for RB, with Nico Hülkenberg 10th for Haas.

Sergio Pérez delivered a poor lap in Q2 and went out in 11th. Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were 12th and 15th for Alpine, Lance Stroll in 13th for Aston Martin and Alex Albon 14th for Williams.

Fernando Alonso finished in 20th for Aston Martin after suffering a heavy crash at Rivazza in final practice. The team did well to repair the car in time for qualifying but the Spaniard continued to struggle and faces a long race on Sunday.

Valtteri Bottas and Guanyu Zhou were in 16th and 18th for Sauber, Logan Sargeant 17th for Williams and Kevin Magnussen 19th for Haas.

Source: theguardian.com