Leclerc leads Hamilton, Verstappen to take Austrian GP pole

SPIELBERG, Austria (AP) — Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc took pole position for the Austrian Grand Prix, edging Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and last year’s winner Max Verstappen in a Red Bull in qualifying Saturday.

It is Leclerc’s second career pole, after starting first at the GP in Bahrain in March. He missed out on what looked like a certain victory in that race because of engine problems with 10 laps left.

The Monegasque driver, who also led the final practice earlier Saturday, set a track record of 1 minute, 3:003 seconds. He was 0.259 faster than Hamilton, with Verstappen 0.436 behind.

Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, who started this race from pole the last two seasons, was the only other driver to clock a lap within a second of Leclerc’s time.

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“It is a big pleasure to drive this car under high pressure,” Leclerc said. “Tomorrow the start will be very important. There is a long straight after it. Normally we are quite fast on the straights so hopefully we can keep that first place in the first three corners. It looks promising.”

As Mercedes failed to match Ferrari’s pace on the straights, Hamilton had to settle for second place.

The championship leader, however, was under investigation by stewards after he appeared to impede Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen in Q1, prompting a hand gesture from the Finnish driver.

Antonio Giovinazzi in Monaco and Carlos Sainz in Canada got three-place grid penalties for similar incidents earlier this season.

“It wasn’t ideal and I wasn’t aware that the other car was coming,” said Hamilton, who will be after his seventh win of the season on Sunday.

“Charles has been quick all weekend. We definitely underestimated how fast they would be,” he added. “It was very tight in the end and it is quite cool to see three teams on the top-three positions.”

Mercedes has won four of the five Austrian GPs since the event’s return to the F1 calendar in 2014, and the team has started the race from pole in each of the last four seasons.

Striving for his third straight drivers’ championship and sixth overall, Hamilton leads teammate Valtteri Bottas by 36 points, while Ferrari driver Sebastain Vettel trails by 76 points in third.

It is Ferrari’s first pole in an Austrian GP since Michael Schumacher got it in 2003, but it was a bittersweet success as Vettel had to skip the final qualifying round following an issue with the air-pressure line to his engine, leaving the German four-time champion only in 10th place.

“It’s a bit (of) a shame for the team as both cars should be closer to one and two,” Leclerc said.

Near the end of Q1, Daniil Kvyat narrowly avoided crashing into Williams’ George Russell, the last of four slower cars which appeared in front of him coming out of a turn.

“I almost killed someone. What was that?” the Torro Rosso driver said over the team radio.

The incident, which was also investigated by the race stewards, destroyed Kvyat’s last chance of a fast lap and the Russian failed to make the next qualifying round.

A total of four drivers picked up grid penalties, with Kevin Magnussen the latest driver to suffer a setback after a change of gearbox in his Haas.

Earlier, Nico Hulkenberg lost five places after Renault decided before the final practice to use the Spec B engine for the rest of the weekend, his fifth internal combustion engine this season.

Also, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon were relegated to the back of the starting pack for using new power unit elements. Sainz was coming off a season-best sixth place in the French GP last week and had scored points in four of the last five races.

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