Lewis Hamilton is braced for an "intense" Saudi Arabia Grand Prix after claiming pole position for Sunday's showdown as the reigning world champion fights to keep his title defence alive.

Hamilton will start from the front of the grid in Jeddah, where Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen crashed into the wall on his final flying lap.

Verstappen went fastest in the first two sectors but hit the barriers on the last corner and had to stop, meaning he will start the main race from third behind Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton has won the past two races to close the gap to Verstappen in the drivers' standings to eight points and evaded a serious punishment for impeding Nikita Mazepin and failing to comply with yellow flags during FP3 earlier on Saturday.

If the Saudi Arabia GP finished in the order started among the top three – Hamilton-Bottas-Verstappen – it would see seven-time world champion Hamilton regain the lead heading into next week's Abu Dhabi decider.

"This place is one of the hardest tracks to get right, I was on the limit the whole way round and the car was on a knife-edge," said Hamilton. "Trying to pull out the maximum with the tyres was so tough.

"It's difficult to understand why - it's so warm here but we were having trouble getting temperature in the front and rears at the same time to have grip at the start of the lap.

"I'm very proud and thankful that we were able to put it on the front row for tomorrow, it's going to be an intense race. It's always important to have Valtteri beside me, particularly in this part of the year, he's been driving exceptionally well and hopefully tomorrow we can do a good job together."

Mercedes team principle Toto Wolff added: "What a crazy session! We expected to be stronger today, we have a quick car and it looked like those quick corners would suit us, but like so many times this season, you're constantly surprised.

"Austin should have been our track and wasn't, and then suddenly in Brazil we were performing really well, so you just never know. It was important today that we kept attacking and attacking, and we've ended up with a front row lockout which is a big advantage for tomorrow.

"There is a brutal energy running through the whole Team. We just look forward and keep pushing, and pushing, and when you go in the debrief room or in the garage, you don't need to talk because you can feel the energy and how buzzed everyone is."

Despite the painful ending to qualifying, Red Bull's Dutchman Verstappen remains upbeat.

"I was on a really good lap until I lost it on the final corner, I thought I had approached it in the same way I had been doing all session, but I lost the rear," he said.

"I'm upset with myself and it is of course disappointing but there are two races to go and anything can happen. We had a good car in qualifying and everything was coming together which gives me hope going into the race tomorrow, also knowing that the pace was there today.

"I hope we can follow well tomorrow and if that’s the case, there should be some good opportunities and we should have a good shot."

Max Verstappen felt "terrible" after hitting the wall on his final flying lap in qualifying for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, handing title rival Lewis Hamilton pole position. 

Championship leader Verstappen went fastest in the first two sectors but hit the barriers on the last corner and had to stop, meaning he will start Sunday's race from third behind Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas. 

The Dutchman will hope the crash did not result in any damage to his gearbox, having taken a new one ahead of the grand prix in Jeddah. A replacement would result in a five-place grid penalty that could have huge ramifications on his title challenge. 

Asked about his crash, Verstappen said: "It's of course terrible. It was a good qualifying. I knew the pace was there and it showed in the last lap. 

"I don't really understand what happened but I locked up and I still tried to keep the car and finish the lap but clipped the rear and had to stop. 

"P3 today is a bit disappointing knowing what lap I was on, but it shows the car is quick and let's see what we can do in the race. 

"I don't know [if the gearbox was damaged]. I immediately stopped so let's see." 

Hamilton has won the past two races to close the gap to Verstappen in the drivers' standings to eight points and evaded a serious punishment for impeding Nikita Mazepin and failing to comply with yellow flags during FP3 earlier on Saturday. 

The seven-time defending champion paid tribute to the efforts of Bottas in the build-up to qualifying and expects Verstappen's Red Bull to be a significant factor on Sunday. 

"We were quick through practice but particularly FP3 and qualifying were just lacking pace, struggling with the tyres, so for us to get a one-two I'm really proud of Valtteri and the men and women in our team who have been working so hard. It's a great result," said Hamilton. 

"This was the goal. We worked so hard through simulation, set-up. Collaboration has been epic with Valtteri, he's the best team-mate there has even been in this sport, for sure. We've worked together to get the car where it needs to be. 

"Those guys [Red Bull] were just so fast. That Bull round this track is just something else, but given where we are and what we've managed to pull out I'm happy. 

"We always get closer in race pace. I anticipate there'll be a close battle on Sunday, but Valtteri and I will be on it." 

Bottas will have getting the win in the back of his mind but his priority will be helping Mercedes clinch the constructors' championship and Hamilton maximise his title chances. 

"Of course I want to get a race win, but first things first we need to concentrate on the team championship and Lewis is still fighting for the title, I'm not," said Bottas.

"I'll do my best with whatever I can and at the same time try to enjoy it." 

Max Verstappen shrugged off pressure as the championship leader insisted it does not matter where he finishes, despite being a win away from claiming the Formula One title.

Verstappen can clinch the F1 title at Sunday's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – the Dutchman holds an eight-point lead over defending world champion and Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton with two races to go.

While Verstappen stands on the cusp of glory, Red Bull star Verstappen said his approach would not change.

Hamilton has stated he is "more relaxed than ever", putting pressure on Verstappen, especially after winning the past two races to narrow the margin.

"Like I've done the whole season, there's no change in that," Verstappen, 24, told reporters about his approach in Jeddah for the first Grand Prix at the circuit.

"It's a new track, first of all we need to learn the track and see how that goes in FP1. For the rest, I just focus on the weekend and try to be as competitive as I can be."

Verstappen continued: "It’s just been of course a great year for us. We had a lot of good moments and it's more enjoyable. Last year was pretty boring for me, because basically all the time I was just in third… to be in this title fight to the end I think is very impressive from our side.

"And of course, I'll try to keep enjoying the last two races. It doesn't matter where we end up; we've had a really, really good season as a team."

Verstappen is 12 years younger than Hamilton, who is a seven-time world champion, and admitted that experience plays a part.

However, Verstappen said he has learned a lot since entering F1 in 2015, finishing third overall in both 2019 and 2020.

"I think it's natural of course that when you are in this stage of your career you are better prepared than what you were in your first or second, when Lewis was fighting for his first title," Verstappen said.

"I think it's a natural progression and it's very normal. I also feel much better prepared and more experienced than when I first came into Formula 1.

"No, I don't think that makes a big difference, because otherwise it would have shown already throughout the season."

Lewis Hamilton is not comfortable racing in Saudi Arabia due to the country's human rights record and says it is "not his choice" to be there. 

Saudi Arabia is hosting its first Formula One race this weekend in Jeddah as part of a reported 10-year deal. 

In the build-up to the race, a number of human rights groups have accused F1 of being complicit in 'sportswashing' for the regime. 

However, reigning world champion Hamilton is hoping the race weekend will at least help raise further awareness around the issue. 

"I feel that the sport and us are duty bound to help raise awareness for certain issues that we've seen, particularly human rights in these countries that we're going to," he said.  

"I can't pretend to be the most knowledgeable or have the deepest understanding of someone who has grown up in the community here that is heavily affected by certain rules. 

"Do I feel comfortable here? I wouldn't say I do. 

"But it's not my choice to be here – the sport has taken the choice to be here. Whether it's right or wrong, while we're here, I feel it's important that we do try to raise awareness." 

Mercedes driver Hamilton heads into the penultimate race of the season eight points behind championship leader Max Verstappen. 

Verstappen could win his maiden title on Sunday if results go his way, but Hamilton has won the last two races in Brazil and Qatar and feels in good shape. 

"I'm more relaxed than I've ever been," he said. "I've been around a long time. I remember how it was with my first championship, even my second and third... the sleepless nights. 

"Now I am a lot more sure about myself and have applied myself better than ever before. 

"I can't change the past – all I can do is prepare 100 per cent for what's ahead of me and I am sure I have." 

One of the most memorable Formula One title races in history could be settled this weekend as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton continue their thrilling 2021 battle at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

A high-speed street race in Jeddah will become the 76th circuit to host an event in F1 history and could be the scene of Verstappen being crowned world champion for the first time.

Verstappen takes an eight-point lead to Saudi Arabia and after the event there will only be 26 left up for grabs in the Abu Dhabi season finale.

But it is his in-form title rival Hamilton who will be feeling the best heading to a new venue as he seeks a third consecutive race victory for the first time in 2021.

Hamilton has launched a stunning late-season charge in his bid to win an eighth world title that would take him above Michael Schumacher for the all-time record but still finds himself with little margin for error.

Should Verstappen win the title, it would be the first time a championship has been decided at a debuting circuit since 1981 when Nelson Piquet was crowned in Las Vegas.

There is also a scenario where the two drivers could, fittingly, go into the last race of the season tied.

If Hamilton wins while setting the fastest lap and Verstappen comes second, the top two would be level going into the final event for the first time since 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi did battle against Clay Regazzoni.

It has been an incredibly consistent season for Verstappen, who has nine wins, nine pole positions and finished in the top two for 16 of the 17 races he has finished.

Verstappen could earn a 17th podium in Saudi Arabia that would equal the record jointly held by Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Schumacher for the most in a single season.

But victory is all that really matters to both drivers on Sunday, with a brand-new circuit containing 27 corners – the most on the F1 calendar – set to play a huge role in determining the outcome of a dramatic season.

LAST TIME OUT

Hamilton celebrated consecutive Formula One wins for the first time since May in the first-ever edition of the Qatar Grand Prix.

Verstappen limited the damage despite a five-place grid penalty due to a yellow-flag infringement in qualifying, impressively recovering to finish second.

The Dutchman also took the extra point for the fastest lap, assured of beating Hamilton to that feat due to a late virtual safety car following a series of punctures.

That outcome set up a tantalising final two races of the season in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

The two title rivals were joined on the Losail podium by Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion's first top-three finish since 2014.

Valtteri Bottas, running in third, suffered a puncture as he attempted a one-stop strategy and ultimately retired, while Sergio Perez questioned Red Bull's call to bring him in twice as he pursued a podium.

The Mexican could not catch Alonso and had to settle for fourth place, ahead of Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN SAUDI ARABIA

With all the momentum behind him, Hamilton goes into the race at Jeddah Corniche Circuit as the favourite for victory, a result which would put the record eighth title within his grasp.

But for Verstappen this event is the first of two opportunities he will have to be crowned world champion. Even a small mistake from either driver at this stage could prove pivotal and the stakes could not be higher.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said their W12 car is performing better than it has been all season ahead of the event, with Red Bull under pressure to bounce back.

The constructors' championship is also up for grabs. Red Bull have closed to within five points of their rivals, while Ferrari are looking to lock up third place ahead of McLaren.

Aside from the championship implications, the debut of the fastest street circuit on the calendar at another new F1 venue should be intriguing.

F1 have revealed average speeds are predicted to be over 155mph with top speeds almost reaching 200mph in what could be a spectacular night race under the lights.

TOP FIVE OPTA FACTS

Hamilton history – The Briton has become the F1 driver with the most seasons (eight) that contain at least seven victories, surpassing Schumacher (seven seasons).

Maiden Mercedes – The team have won the race and taken pole position in the last five circuit debuts in F1. As well as in Qatar time out, it also happened in Sochi (2014), Baku (2016), Mugello (2020), Portimao (2020).

Pole position – If Mercedes claim pole it will be their fourth in a row and best run of the season. However, Red Bull have had the better of qualifying this season, as Hamilton and Bottas combined (eight) have fewer poles than Verstappen alone (nine).

Max milestones – Should Verstappen be crowned world champion, he will be the first Dutchman to achieve the feat, the first non-Mercedes driver to do it in the eight hybrid era years and the fourth-youngest in history at 24.

Perez progress – While Verstappen's team-mate will not be thrilled to sit fourth in the standings, he has still collected nine points more in 20 races for Red Bull (190) than his predecessor Alex Albon did in 26 races (181) for the team.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 351.5
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 343.5
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 203
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 190
5. Lando Norris (McLaren) 153

Constructors

1. Mercedes 546.5
2. Red Bull 541.5
3. Ferrari 297.5
4. McLaren 258
5. Alpine 137

Williams founder and former team principal Frank Williams has died at the age of 79.

Having founded the team alongside Patrick Head in 1977, Williams saw the team he built become one of the most successful in Formula One.

They won nine constructors' championships and seven drivers' championships across his time with the team. Williams have not claimed either since winning both in 1997 when Jacques Villeneuve won the drivers' crown.

The team sold to US investors in 2020. Williams and his daughter Claire, who had served as deputy team principal, moved away from F1 last year.

A statement from Williams read: "It is with great sadness that on behalf of the Williams family, the team can confirm the death of Sir Frank Williams CBE, founder and former team principal of Williams Racing, at the age of 79.

"After being admitted into hospital on Friday, Sir Frank passed away peacefully this morning surrounded by his family.

"Today we pay tribute to our much loved and inspirational figurehead. Frank will be sorely missed. We request that all friends and colleagues respect the Williams family's wishes for privacy at this time."

Referencing the spinal cord injury suffered in a car crash in 1986 that left Williams in a wheelchair, F1 president and chief executive Stefano Domenicali said: "He was a true giant of our sport that overcame the most difficult of challenges in life and battled every day to win on and off the track.

"We have lost a much loved and respected member of the F1 family and he will be hugely missed.

“His incredible achievements and personality will be etched on our sport forever. My thoughts are with all the Williams family and friends at this sad time."

Lewis Hamilton is hopeful that future team-mate George Russell will be the next Briton to win the Formula One world championship.

The British drivers will link up next season, with Russell set to replace Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes.

The 24-year-old is 15th in the drivers' standings, having achieved his first podium with Williams at the Belgian Grand Prix, while also recording top-10 finishes in Hungary, Italy and Russia.

Many expect Russell to offer a genuine challenge to Hamilton, who recently signed a new two-year deal with Mercedes, with the latter seeking an eighth world title and just eight points behind leader Max Verstappen heading into the final two races of the 2021 season.

The 36-year-old is anticipating a healthy rivalry with his compatriot and hopes he can be a positive influence on the 2018 Formula 2 world champion.

"You've seen George is hugely respectful," he said in an interview published by BBC Sport.

"He's a super-talented young man and I think there's a huge amount of respect already going in, and we've got a nice balance at the moment.

"But he's going to want to be quick, he's going to want to show up and win, and do all those things that you do when you enter a new role.

"I remember in 2007 when I went up against [Fernando] Alonso [at McLaren]. Of course, I wanted to beat him at the first race, so I appreciate and expect George to have that mentality; otherwise he's not a winner.

"But I'm in a different place. I really want to see him succeed. There's going to be a point where I don't continue in this sport. He's my team-mate, and he's going to be the next Brit that I want to see win a world championship.

"So, while we are going to be competing, and I want to win on track. I really hope I can have a positive influence on how he conducts himself within the team, whether it's the time he commits to engineering or how he churns through the data, or even just how he drives on track."

Lewis Hamilton is aiming to be the "smarter" driver as he bids to outrun Max Verstappen in a remarkably close Formula One title challenge.

Hamilton is hunting a record seventh world title, but currently trails Verstappen by eight points heading into the final two races of the season.

The 36-year-old has won the last two grands prix, however, having followed up his triumph in Sao Paulo with success in Qatar last weekend.

Hamilton and Verstappen's contest has regularly boiled over onto the track, the former penalised for a collision at Silverstone, while the latter was punished at the Italian Grand Prix and was fortunate to escape a penalty for a near-miss in Brazil.

"Rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you have to know that's what's going to happen," Hamilton told BBC Sport.

"So you always have to be ready to avoid a collision at all costs, [even] if it means going wide, because you want to see the end of the race, right? If you're stubborn and you hold your ground, you're going to crash.

"So that's what I've just tried to do. You can't always get it perfect.

"I am not too big or too successful to have to back out to fight another day. I know that is sometimes the route you have to take. You have to be the smarter one.

"And sometimes you lose points in doing that, for sure, but it's not just about me. I have 2,000 people behind me and through that selfish decision I could make. That costs all my team potential bonuses at the end of the year, all the hard work they have to do, the damage of the car. I am conscious of those things also."

Hamilton believes driving, and winning, in as pure a fashion as possible is the best way for him to prove his quality.

"It's just how my dad raised me," said Hamilton. "He said to always do your talking on the track.

"I was bullied as a kid, both at school but also on track, and we wanted to beat them the right way, not by a car falling off or colliding.

"Then, there is no denying that you're better. I want to be the purest of drivers, through speed, through sheer hard work and determination, so there's no denying at the end what I've accomplished."

Of Verstappen's aggressive approach, Hamilton said: "He's not the only driver I've raced against that's like this.

"I've raced so many drivers in my time and they've all been very different in the way they behave. And it's interesting.

"Now I'm older, I look a little bit deeper into their character and a bit of their background, upbringing. Our upbringing is why we act out the way we do and behave the way we do, good or bad. So I try to understand those so I can have more appreciation of who that character is I am racing with."

Fernando Alonso was delighted to return to a Formula One podium for the first time in seven years as he finished third at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Alonso was a two-time champion with Renault, now Alpine, and a regular title contender in his time at Ferrari before he quit the series at the end of 2018 having struggled with McLaren.

The Spaniard twice won the 24 Hours of Le Mans while away from F1 but is back with Alpine this year.

Heading into Sunday's race at the Losail International Circuit, where he started from third following penalties for Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas, Alonso had registered 13 points finishes this season without reaching the podium.

Indeed, his last top-three finish had been in Budapest in 2014, but that wait came to an end with a little help from a virtual safety car.

Alonso struggled to stick with race winner Lewis Hamilton and championship leader Verstappen beyond the first few laps but clung on to third when Sergio Perez, who pitted twice, was slowed in the closing stages.

The Alpine man had been ailing at that point, having benefited from one of several tyre punctures when Valtteri Bottas fell from third and later retired.

"Unbelievable. Seven years but finally we got it," Alonso said of his 98th F1 podium. "We were close [in] a couple of races but not [close] enough. Sochi was the last possibility.

"Here today, honestly, I thought I could be leading after lap one. I thought with the red tyre I could have a go at Lewis, but I couldn't.

"Then Checo was very close at the end, but I'm so happy for the team. Also with Esteban [Ocon] P5, it's a good Sunday."

Alonso maintained his spotless record of having collected points at all 34 circuits at which he has raced in F1 following this first Qatar GP.

He added: "I'm enjoying it. F***, I was waiting so long for this, so I'm happy."

Lewis Hamilton was "really, really grateful" for a Qatar Grand Prix win that closed the gap at the top to eight points, but Max Verstappen is pleased to be pushed all the way for his first Formula One title.

Hamilton is bidding for a record-breaking eighth championship but has work to do to reel in leader Verstappen.

The Briton followed up his Losail pole with victory on Sunday, although Verstappen recovered from seventh – following a grid penalty – to finish second and take the fastest lap, limiting the damage as much as possible.

It was ultimately a day both men could enjoy, even if Verstappen's penalty meant the only real jeopardy for Hamilton was avoiding the fate of others in the field who saw their tyres punctured.

"It was pretty straightforward. It's pretty lonely at the front," Hamilton said. "Of course, I enjoy those races where you're battling through, but we needed those points today.

"It was a really solid job from the team with pit stops and with the car.

"I can't wait to watch the replay of the race to see what happened behind me. I'm not really sure why people's tyres were going – I'm sure it's the kerbs.

"But I'm really, really grateful for these points. It's been a hell of a year, so to be at this point in the year and have back-to-back wins is a great, great feeling. It puts us in good stead for the next two."

Verstappen added: "Of course our starting position was a bit compromised, but luckily we had a really good start. From there, I was quite quickly back into second.

"At the end of the day, to get that fastest lap was very nice. I know it's going to be difficult to the end, but I think that's nice. It keeps it exciting."

Lewis Hamilton celebrated consecutive Formula One wins for the first time since May as a precious victory at the Qatar Grand Prix moved him to within eight points of Max Verstappen.

The Mercedes superstar followed up his Sao Paulo success with another triumph, although Verstappen limited the damage despite a five-place grid penalty due to a yellow-flag infringement in qualifying.

The championship leader recovered to finish second and also took the extra point for the fastest lap, assured of beating Hamilton to that feat due to a late virtual safety car following a series of punctures.

The two title rivals were joined on the podium by Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion's first top-three finish since 2014.

Both he and pole man Hamilton enjoyed strong starts, although Verstappen wasted little time in wiping out his penalty.

Starting from seventh, the Dutchman gained three places from the start but was then shut out by Alonso, who passed Pierre Gasly into second.

Verstappen stayed on Gasly's tail and eased past on lap four before quickly hunting down Alonso, yet Hamilton had already disappeared into the distance.

Hamilton continued to stretch his advantage out towards 10 seconds before Verstappen pitted and the Mercedes man immediately responded, following him in to maintain the lead.

That gap closed very slightly as Hamilton worked his way through the backmarkers, but drama was limited at the front until Valtteri Bottas, running in third, suffered a puncture as he attempted a one-stop strategy.

That was the first of several such issues, meaning Verstappen took no risks and pitted a second time soon after, with Hamilton again heading in on the next lap.

Sergio Perez questioned Red Bull's call to bring him in twice as he pursued a podium, and it was a move that ultimately did not pay off as he failed to reel in Alonso due to the virtual safety car.

BOTTAS BLOW ADVISES STRATEGY

Mercedes expected a two-stop from Verstappen, so promised Bottas there would be "opportunities" if he went longer and took care of his tyres. Unfortunately, that strategy failed.

Bottas, who qualified in third, was penalised to sixth and then fell to 11th, had recovered to third place on lap 36 when he sustained a puncture and was forced to limp back to the pit, ruled out of contention entirely as he re-emerged in 14th. He later retired, just as Williams pair George Russell and Nicholas Latifi each also suffered punctures to the same front-left tyres.

Perez might have been less than impressed, but the single stops proved a huge gamble.

ADD LOSAIL TO LEWIS' LIST

Hamilton already held the record for poles (30 of 34) and wins (29 of 34) at the most different circuits and added to both tallies at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix.

Alonso also enjoyed his Losail bow, collecting points at the 34th of 34 tracks in real style.

Max Verstappen heads into Sunday's Qatar Grand Prix well off the pace of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes and under investigation by the stewards, with the fallout over the title rivals' battle in Brazil refusing to die down.

Verstappen is under investigation for refusing to slow down under waved yellow flags in qualifying.

The world championship leader has been summoned to the stewards having apparently failed to respond to single waved yellows on his final lap after Pierre Gasly suffered a puncture on the pit straight.

If found guilty, he will likely face a grid penalty having qualified second behind Hamilton, who set a blistering time of 1:20.827.

Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas (third) and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz (seventh) are also under investigation for the same offence.

Qualifying came after an elongated drivers briefing that lasted over an hour as they sought clarification over what represents fair driving following the tussle between Verstappen and Hamilton in Sao Paulo, which saw the latter forced off track as they fought for the lead.

Asked if the FIA had succeeded in clarifying the issue, Verstappen told the drivers' media conference: "I think it's always trying to align everyone in having the same process in the way you think, everyone.

"Everyone is different, right? And everybody I think has their own way of racing and defending and overtaking, and of course very hard for the FIA as well to, how do you say it? To get everyone on the same line.

"Of course, they decide but every driver has a different opinion. And I think yesterday [Friday] it was all about sharing their opinions, and then the FIA explaining their process of thought behind it. So, I think we came a long way, and it was a very long briefing. So, yeah, I think at the end it was pretty clear."

Hamilton, though, had a very different view.

"It's not clear. Every driver, except for Max, was asking just for clarity, most drivers were asking for clarity, but it wasn't very clear," he said. 

"So, yeah, it's still not clear what the limits of the track are. It's clearly not the white line anymore, when overtaking but… yeah, we just go for it. We just ask for consistency. So, if it's the same as the last race then it should be the same for all of us in those scenarios and it's fine."

With victory, Hamilton could trim Verstappen's lead to seven points were the Dutchman to finish second, and he has every reason for confidence with his Mercedes taking pole by a gap that surprised even himself.

"Probably the last three races in qualifying we have been ahead of them, which has been a bit of a surprise," added Hamilton. 

"Today definitely wasn't expecting to have as big a gap as that. I looked, I was relatively comfortable and was around tenth or so ahead throughout the session, but to be able to pull out that extra time felt great and it's a great showing of the hard work, all the guys, as I said we were here until midnight last night. The guys were here even later than that. Really great work from everyone.

"Long-run pace is good. We always end up getting closer… or our pace closes up to each other when it comes to race pace and yeah, I think the car is in a good place. It's a difficult circuit to follow so, yeah, I'm looking forward to the start."

Max Verstappen conceded Red Bull are struggling for pace after a "beautiful" lap from Lewis Hamilton saw the Mercedes driver take pole for the Qatar Grand Prix.

Hamilton, who cut Verstappen's lead in the drivers' championship to 14 points with his victory in Sao Paulo last time out, was quickest on Saturday with a blistering lap of 1:20.827.

Verstappen could not get close to that and was left to settle for second for the first Formula One race in Qatar, the Dutchman finishing 0.455 seconds off the pace.

Valtteri Bottas was third for Mercedes, with Red Bull's setback of Verstappen being unable to get ahead of Hamilton on the grid exacerbated by Sergio Perez failing to make it out of Q2.

Perez will start in 11th, meaning it is Hamilton who has a clear edge going into another crucial race.

Speaking after qualifying, Verstappen said: "[We're] lacking a bit of pace, it's been just a bit more tricky for us, again, in qualifying.

"It just shows we're struggling a bit more than normal. All to play for, but I wish we could have fought for more.

"There's a lot of unknowns, we just need to work on our start and we'll see where we end up."

The difference between Hamilton and Verstappen marked the largest pole margin in dry qualifying this year, with things looking up for the seven-time world champion after a challenging week.

"Yesterday was a really difficult day, Thursday and Friday I wasn't feeling too well, really had to dig deep," said Hamilton.

"I was here until midnight last night, working with the engineers, we found a lot of areas where I could improve. 

"We didn't have any traffic, that last lap was beautiful, this track is amazing to drive.

"I felt fantastic today, slept really well last night, that made a big difference."

Asked about strategy for the race, Hamilton added: "It's not the easiest of circuits to follow, but it's also not massively degrading on the tyres.

"It could be a one or two [stop], we'll find out tomorrow. It's nice and wide into turn one, so we'll be giving everything."


PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.455s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.651s
4. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.813s
5. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +0.843s
6. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.904s
7. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1.013s
8. Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +1.054s
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1.201s
10. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1.958s

Mercedes have failed with an appeal over an incident involving Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton during the Sao Paulo Grand Prix last weekend.

Verstappen forced Formula One title rival Hamilton off the track in Brazil last week in defending his position at the front of the race.

The race stewards "noted" the incident while the race was ongoing, but did not see any reason to penalise Red Bull's championship leader.

Hamilton went on to win the race, reducing the Dutchman's lead to 14 points with three races to go.

The Silver Arrows on Tuesday revealed they had asked for the stewards to take another look at the incident on the basis of "new evidence" from onboard camera footage.

It was confirmed on Friday Verstappen will not face any punishment after the stewards rejected the appeal.

The stewards explained: "There will always be some angles of video footage, because of limits in both technology and bandwidth, that are unavailable at the time.

"Whether or not stewards' decisions are considered to be right or wrong, and just as with referees' decisions in soccer, it does not seem desirable to be able to review any or all such in‐race discretionary decisions up to two weeks after the fact and the stewards therefore seriously doubt that the intent of the Right of Review in the ISC [International Sporting Code] is to enable competitors to seek a review of such discretionary decisions that do not follow on from a formal inquiry by the stewards and do not result in a published document."

Although the stewards agreed Mercedes had provided new and relevant evidence, they disagreed that it was "significant" in this case.

Their statement said: "The stewards often must make a decision quickly and on a limited set of information. At the time of the decision, the stewards felt they had sufficient information to make a decision, which subsequently broadly aligned with the immediate post‐race comments of both drivers involved.

"Had they felt that the forward‐facing camera video from Car 33 [Verstappen] was crucial in order to take a decision, they would simply have placed the incident under investigation – to be investigated after the race – and rendered a decision after this video was available. They saw no need to do so."

Both Verstappen and Hamilton were the subject of stewards' enquiries in Brazil, the latter handed his second penalty of the week due to a DRS issue.

The verdict was announced after Verstappen was fastest in the first practice session at the Qatar Grand Prix.

Max Verstappen did not appear concerned on Thursday by a looming decision over Mercedes' attempt to have an incident at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix reviewed.

Verstappen forced Formula One title rival Lewis Hamilton off the track in Brazil last week in defending his position at the front of the race.

That was initially deemed a fair move, and Hamilton eventually passed the championship leader anyway, cutting the gap at the top to 14 points with a precious win.

But Mercedes subsequently appealed for the incident to be reviewed again on the basis of "new evidence".

The FIA has said stewards will announce whether the clash will be fully re-examined on Friday ahead of the Qatar Grand Prix, teeing up another nervous wait.

Both Verstappen and Hamilton were the subject of stewards' enquiries in Brazil, the latter handed his second penalty of the week due to a DRS issue.

But Dutchman Verstappen is not letting this latest controversy worry him ahead of a potentially pivotal grand prix.

"Listen, if it would have been the other way around in Brazil, it would have exactly played out like that," he told Sky Sports.

"It's hard racing. We are fighting for a championship; we are not here to be in a kindergarten."

Hamilton said: "I'm just putting all my energy to setting up the car and making sure I'm in the right headspace this weekend."

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