LOSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen qualified 1-2 for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, setting up a showdown between the Formula One championship contenders at the very start of Sunday’s race.
Hamilton won the 102nd pole of his career, fourth of the season and first since the Hungarian Grand Prix in August. Hamilton trails Verstappen by 14 points in the championship fight with three races remaining.
He beat Verstappen by 0.455 seconds Saturday to win the pole at Losail International Circuit. The seven-time champion said his stomach had been bothering him since he arrived in Qatar, but a good night’s sleep helped his recovery.
Hamilton said his stomachache made opening day at the new circuit difficult, and he was fourth in both of Friday’s practice sessions.
“I really struggled throughout first practice and I was just really off,” Hamilton said. “I was here ’til midnight working with the engineers, who also always work so late, and found I lot of areas in which I can improve.”
Mercedes made changes in Saturday’s final practice and Hamilton said in qualifying he was aided by smart strategy that sent him on track with little traffic and a strong lap by the driver. It was a dominant showing for Hamilton, who was fastest in all three qualifying groups. He was the first driver to head out for a final qualifying run and was the only driver to log a lap in the 1 minute, 20-second range. He was nearly a half-second faster than Verstappen.
“That last lap was beautiful, it was a really sweet lap,” Hamilton said. “This track is amazing to drive, it is incredibly fast. It felt good.”
Verstappen said Red Bull was lacking pace and noted that teammate Sergio Perez failed to advance to the final qualifying group. Perez will start 11th.
“It’s been just a bit more tricky for us in qualifying,” Verstappen said. “We are struggling a bit more than normal. We’ve never done a race here, so there’s a lot of unknowns.”
The race is the first in a 10-year deal between F1 and Qatar.
Hamilton on Friday debuted a helmet that sported a rainbow in the colors of the Progress Pride flag that recognizes the LGBTQ+ community. He shared a photo of it on his social media feeds with the caption “We stand together” and said after qualifying he expects to wear the helmet at upcoming races in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton on Friday once again spoke out on human rights issues in the region and acknowledged F1 was closing its season in places “deemed as the worst in this part of the world” regarding human rights abuses. Campaign groups have highlighted discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ+ individuals in the Gulf state, which will also host the World Cup next year.
He said after qualifying he’d not received any negative feedback about the helmet.
“It’s important for me to represent that community. I know there are several situations that aren’t perfect and need to be highlighted,” Hamilton said. “But I hope that someone reaches out and would love to know what is happening here and what they’re doing to help support the LBGTQ+ community.”
Valtteri Bottas, teammate to Hamilton at Mercedes, qualified third and was followed by Pierre Gasly of AlphaTauri. Gasly has been fast all weekend but a tire puncture near the end of qualifying slowed him. Gasly ran wide in the penultimate corner and his front wing shattered when he hit a curb, causing the tire puncture.
Fernando Alonso qualified fifth for Alpine and was followed by Lando Norris of McLaren and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari.
Yuki Tsunoda was eighth, about 0.2 seconds behind teammate Gasly, and followed by Esteban Ocon of Alpine and Sebastian Vettel of Aston Martin.
The weekend opened with the Brazil GP still the main topic of discussion as Mercedes contested the FIA decision not to penalize Verstappen for running Hamilton wide off course last week in Sao Paulo. Mercedes requested a review of the decision, which the FIA denied in the middle of a Friday press briefing between the principals of the two warring teams.
Red Bull has complained the rear wing on the Mercedes has been illegal in some races and Verstappen was fined last week in Brazil for touching the wing following a practice session.
“It’s difficult to know. Not only moving forward, but what has been already done and raced with in previous races,” Verstappen said. “I mean, we have footage from it, so these things can get highlighted. Let’s just hope that we’re going to have a good battle to the end.”
The 24-year-old Dutchman is seeking his first F1 championship. Hamilton, who is 36, has won four consecutive titles.