Saudi Arabian Grand Prix 2023: Max Verstappen retires from qualifying as Sergio Perez takes pole

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

When Max Verstappen laid down a lap time a second faster than any rival teams in the final practice session for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, pole position for Sunday’s race looked a certainty.

But just as the two-time world champion was cementing his status as the sport’s dominance force, a driveshaft failure forced him out at the halfway point in qualifying on Saturday.

It means a race that looked in danger of being a procession as it had been at the Bahrain Grand Prix two weeks ago has the potential to offer a far closer spectacle in Jeddah.

Verstappen had what he called a big moment during Q2 where he nearly lost control of the RB19 and moments later complained of a lack of acceleration, suspecting over the team radio he had suffered engine problem. Red Bull later clarified it was a driveshaft failure.

Such is the pace of the Red Bull, Verstappen, who had initially told his team he thought it was his engine, may yet prove favourite for the race despite being forced to start from 15th on the grid.

His team still highlighted their dominance in his track absence as Sergio Perez took only the second pole of his Formula 1 career with a best lap time of 1:29.244 at the same circuit where he had achieved his first a year ago.

Perez found himself in a tight battle with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso, of Aston Martin, but the Mexican edged out Leclerc by 0.155. Leclerc, though, will start from 12th place after going into the race with a ten-place grid penalty as a result of taking new parts on his Ferrari.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Alonso had briefly threatened to clinch his first pole since the German Grand Prix back in 2012 but, come the final shoot-out, he had to make do with the third quickest time but a starting place of second.

Lewis Hamilton has cut an unhappy figure this season, blaming his Mercedes team for going in the wrong direction with the W14 with team boss Toto Wolff conjecturing his star man could yet walk away from the team if unable to turn around their fortunes.

In the all-British battle with George Russell, the seven-time world champion was always off the pace throughout qualifying to end up eighth fastest on the grid (and seventh for the race) with Russell in third for the grand prix.

Russell declared himself to be fighting for a podium while Hamilton got a subdued figure following qualifying.

“George did a great job, great result for him,” he said afterwards. “He was just able to get the car in a different place to me. The car’s obviously got performance, but I don’t feel connected to this car.

“No matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t get confidence in it. I’m at a bit of a loss with it.” Asked if he expected an improvement in the race, he said he wasn’t holding his breath.

Lando Norris, who had endured a torrid time at the season opener in Bahrain, had another qualifying session to forget as he hit the wall with his front left tyre and had to retire. He will start 19th on the grid.