Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was usurped by Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas during a nightmare Austrian Grand Prix qualifying for Ferrari. 

Hamilton looked the red-hot favourite for pole position after completing a practice sweep with a comfortable buffer over Bottas in all three practice sessions throughout Friday and Saturday morning in Austria. But when it mattered, Bottas turned in an almighty performance to turn the tables on Hamilton. 

The key for Bottas was a meticulous approach to steadily improving the certain corners where he was losing time to Hamilton.

After trailing Hamilton by 0.356s in opening practice, Bottas eked away to cut the gap down to 0.197 by the end of FP2, before further reducing the margin in final practice to 0.147s. 

Bottas overturned the deficit to be quicker than Hamilton in the first two segments of qualifying - including topping Q2 - and he took that new-found momentum into the all-important Q3 showdown for pole. 

The Finn held a slender advantage of 0.122s over Hamilton after the first runs in Q3, having become the first driver to dip below the 63-second mark with a new circuit lap record of 1m02.939s. 

Bottas was faster still in the first sector on his final flying lap but skated into the gravel at the exit of Turn 4 and threw away his gains, while Hamilton, following just behind, was also improving. 

The reigning six-times world champion bettered his time to a 1m02.951s but ended up an agonising 0.012s shy as Bottas prevailed to his 12th career pole. 

A frustrated Hamilton conceded Bottas had done “the better job” and made no excuses for missing out on pole, despite having to drive through a large amount of dust and gravel kicked up by Bottas’ W11 car during his grass-cutting excursion. 

Hamilton evaded a potential grid penalty for Sunday’s grand prix after being summoned to the stewards for failing to slow for the yellow flags shown for Bottas, with the Austrian GP stewards deleting his first lap time in Q3 for a track limits infringement. 

Speaking about his pole lap, Bottas said: “It feels really good. I definitely missed this kind of adrenalin rush you get from pushing these machines to the limit, trying to be at your personal peak and performance, it’s so much fun. 

“I obviously enjoyed the qualifying session and for me, it was in qualifying I finally managed to unlock some of the performance from myself and from the car for the one lap run. 

“There were certain corners I sometimes was getting right but, most of the time, I was just a bit off. 

“It was just throughout the qualifying I managed to build some confidence, find the areas where I was missing and managed to get some good laps - managed to put some pieces together.

“I think there was more to come,” he added. “I was slightly up on my previous time on my second lap, until I ran a bit wide on Turn 4, went on the gravel and went off the track. 

“That was my mistake, so it wasn’t quite perfect, but it was super close with Lewis, so I’m glad it was good enough.”

Mercedes in a league of its own

Red Bull arrived at its home race in Austria confident it could begin what it hoped would prove to be a title challenge to Mercedes after a strong pre-season showing in Barcelona, but it quickly became evident that the team still has some work to do if it is to halt the Silver Arrows juggernaut this year. 

Max Verstappen was consistently the quicker of the two Red Bull drivers in the build up to qualifying but aside from topping the first part of qualifying - when Mercedes had its engines turned down - he never looked in contention to fight for pole.

The Dutchman ultimately sealed third and was 0.538s off the pace in his RB16. The margin of gap to its rivals left Mercedes surprised, prompting Bottas to say: “We seem to be in our own league.”

Verstappen was left to concede that Mercedes was “on a different level” in qualifying, although he will start the race on a different tyre than Mercedes, having chosen to run the medium in the second part of qualifying. 

That could open the door for a possible strategic advantage on Sunday by running longer into the race than Mercedes, but in truth, the reigning world champion outfit looks unbeatable. 

“We were quite surprised with the advantage,” Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff acknowledged in his post-qualifying media call on Saturday. 

“You never quite know where everybody stands after such a long break and we knew that Honda will be coming back strong with an update, therefore it is very difficult to judge. 

“So, the five tenths comes as a little bit of a surprise around a track that wasn’t our best in the past. I’m quite pleased.”

Asked by Crash.net if he agreed with Bottas’ verdict, Wolff replied: “In terms of being in a league of our own, I wouldn’t cherish today on the evening when we have a race to do tomorrow. 

“We have Red Bull on an offset strategy, it’s going to be hot and reliability will play an important factor. What I take from today is that we have good speed, and the rest we will have to prove tomorrow.”

Ferrari endures a shocker 

Ferrari had been downplaying its chances ever since pre-season testing concluded when it appeared well off the pace compared to Mercedes and Red Bull.  

Aerodynamic flaws discovered on its SF1000 have forced Ferrari to redesign its car, with an updated package coming at the Hungarian Grand Prix later this month. 

The Scuderia had effectively resigned itself to being behind its main rivals at the start of the season until its upgrade arrives, but no-one at Maranello could have foreseen how badly qualifying would pan out in Austria as it ended up falling into the midfield scrap. 

Both Ferrari drivers flirted with elimination from qualifying in Q2 but it was Sebastian Vettel who suffered embarrassment when he was knocked out.

The four-time world champion, who is leaving Ferrari when his contract expires at the end of the year, was only 10th fastest after his opening run. A scrappy final effort meant Vettel failed to better his effort while others improved. As a result, the German is set to line-up 11th on the Spielberg grid. 

For teammate Charles Leclerc, things were not much better as he sneaked through into the final part of qualifying with P10, before going on to qualify a lowly seventh, nearly a full second down on Bottas. 

Leclerc was evidently shocked over team radio at just how slow Ferrari was. 

After asking whether he was safe from the cut-off time required to make it through to Q3, Leclerc was told by his engineer: “Yes, you are P10.”

"That's crazy," Leclerc replied. His response spoke volumes. 

With back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring, Ferrari looks destined for more struggles before its much-needed update comes in Hungary. 

 

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