Max Verstappen is taking the Formula One title race to Mercedes and he holds all of the momentum as Red Bull return home for two consecutive races in Austria.

The Red Bull Ring will host rounds eight and nine of the 2021 season, starting with the Styrian Grand Prix this week.

Triumphs for Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez were impressive at the street circuits of Monaco and Baku.

But the Dutchman's win at the more traditional French Grand Prix – a race Mercedes had dominated in the previous two years – was a huge statement.

Verstappen now leads Hamilton by 12 points in the drivers' standings, while Red Bull are 37 in front when it comes to the constructors' championship.

The leader is chasing his third career victory in Spielberg, which would make this his most successful track in terms of wins.

 

Verstappen is also looking for a fifth podium at the circuit, while a finish of seventh or better will make this venue his most productive for points. 

A fourth win of 2021 would also make this his most successful F1 season even though we are not yet at the halfway stage, highlighting his team's huge progress.

Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton won the two grands prix here last year, though there were sweet home successes for Red Bull in each of the two years prior.

Another triumph would pile further pressure on Mercedes, whose lead driver Hamilton has gone three without victory. Only in 2016 – the last time he was not crowned champion – has he had a worse run since 2014.
 

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull rescued a dramatic victory for Verstappen with a bold strategy call at the French Grand Prix.

That came after an error from the Dutchman – who started on pole – saw Hamilton move into the ascendancy on lap one. 

Trailing the Briton after that poor start, Red Bull's strategy turned the race on its head with a powerful undercut. Once back in the lead, they then made the call to pit a second time and surrender track position. 

With Hamilton out in front on older tyres, Verstappen got to work cutting the gap and made the winning pass on the penultimate lap to cap a thrilling race.

Perez beat Bottas to the last spot on the podium, with Lando Norris the best of the rest in fifth for McLaren as neither Ferrari made the top 10.
 

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SPIELBERG

While Red Bull are flying high and can draw upon past positive memories at home, the last time they had a race where both drivers retired in F1 was on this circuit last year at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Mercedes' two 2020 successes give them hope of a title fightback and, despite their torrid recent run, the championship damage has been limited to an extent with 12 points still a manageable gap for Hamilton.

Failure to win, though, would give the German team their worst run in the Hybrid Era of four races without victory.

The improved form of Perez and Bottas over recent races has brought an added dimension to a season where Hamilton and Verstappen had taken centre stage.

But Bottas is yet to finish in the top two this season and the under-pressure Finn will be particularly closely watched in Austria.

He expressed frustration over strategy on team radio in France – which team boss Toto Wolff insisted he was fine with – amid continued speculation over whether George Russell will take his seat next season.

Ferrari are in need of a boost after a dreadful outing in France which allowed McLaren to seize the advantage in the race for third.

 

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Brilliant Bottas – The Finn needs a result and will hope it can come at a circuit where he has more poles (three) than at any other. Mercedes have been on pole in six of the last seven Spielberg races, with the exception being Charles Leclerc in 2019.

Spielberg Saturday – Qualifying could be crucial – since 2014 (when Spielberg returned to F1), the eventual winner at the Red Bull Ring has begun the race on the first two rows of the starting grid. Six of those eight races had a winner start on the front row.

Frustrated Ferrari – Both drivers for the Italian team have finished without scoring points in two out of the last eight grands prix (2020 Abu Dhabi and 2021 France). That is as many times as it happened in Ferrari's previous 214 races.

Prime Perez – The Mexican comes to this contest after reaching back-to-back podiums for the first time in his F1 career. He is also enjoying his best streak of consecutive top-five finishes (5).

Lively Lando – Norris has scored points in his last 12 GPs, the best run in his F1 career and longest active streak on the grid. The last McLaren driver to record a better sequence than the Briton was Fernando Alonso in his opening 14 races of the 2007 campaign.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers


1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 131
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 119
3. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 84
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 76
5. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 59

Constructors

1. Red Bull – 215
2. Mercedes – 178
3. McLaren – 110
4. Ferrari – 94
5. AlphaTauri – 45

Toto Wolff insisted Mercedes had to pit Valtteri Bottas first at the French Grand Prix and allow Red Bull to set up Max Verstappen for a stunning undercut.

After an early Verstappen error, the championship leader was running in third, between two Silver Arrows.

Lewis Hamilton led, with Bottas back in third, but Mercedes team principal Wolff explained the Finn had issues with his tyres that meant he had to head for the pit lane.

That call prompted Verstappen to pit next and he enjoyed an out lap described by Wolff as "phenomenal" while Hamilton followed him in and narrowly lost the lead.

Red Bull took a further risk by bringing Verstappen in a second time to attack the Mercedes pair on fresh medium tyres, but the first stop proved pivotal, accommodating that bold two-stop strategy.

Verstappen won the race, with runner-up Hamilton a fraction under three seconds behind him.

Wolff pondered if Mercedes had "misjudged" the undercut and added it was "something to improve".

However, he told Sky Sports: "We knew we were going to trigger the stops too early, but we had no choice."

Wolff said: "It went back and forward. We were in the lead because Max made the mistake, so that was a bit inherited.

"Then our pace was good, probably a little bit of a margin even. But then we had just about three seconds gap for the undercut, to protect the undercut, but it wasn't enough.

"We were lacking a second. Somewhere we lost it."

Red Bull boss Christian Horner added: "I think it's been a great race. You can see how close it is.

"It's been a great win for us today, but you've only got to look how tight it is between the two teams. It's going to be nip and tuck all the way through this championship, but we're going to be very happy leaving here.

"I think I'm visibly ageing with each grand prix, but we'll give Toto a few grey hairs by the end of the year as well."

A delighted Max Verstappen reflected on his "very rewarding" win at the French Grand Prix in which Red Bull's risky strategy delivered in dramatic fashion.

Championship leader Verstappen had pole position but swiftly slipped behind Lewis Hamilton when he lost his rear at Turn 2 on the opening lap.

From there, though, Red Bull provided a hugely effective rescue package, first by executing an undercut that allowed Verstappen to edge back in front despite a solid Hamilton pit stop.

The Dutchman's battling qualities came to the fore as he held off both Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, before Red Bull opted to take a gamble.

Verstappen went in for a second stop and faced a sizeable deficit on fresh medium tyres, albeit with time on his side.

The 23-year-old had to stay patient, but Bottas put up little fight and Hamilton was then passed on the penultimate lap to open up a 12-point gap at the top of the drivers' standings.

"Thank you so much, so good," Verstappen told his team, and he was then asked on the podium if he had enjoyed a gripping race.

"Towards the end, yes," he replied.

 

"In the beginning, it was super difficult out there with the wind, so one lap you had an okay balance and then the next lap you were just sliding everywhere. It was really difficult to keep the car stable.

"Once we made the first pit stop, you could clearly see on the hard tyres they were pushing me hard from behind. 

"But when we made the call to do a two-stopper, luckily in the end that paid off. We had to work hard for it, but of course it's very rewarding."

On his attempts to reel in Hamilton, Verstappen added: "It was difficult, because there was quite a lot of backmarkers to go through, but luckily they all did well so we could have a good fight to the end."

And talk predictably then turned to the title picture, with seven-time champion Hamilton finally facing a fight again.

"You could see the whole race we were fighting each other, so I think it will be like this for the rest of the season," Verstappen said.

Hamilton added: "We've got to find some pace, that's for sure.

"You could see most of the time we lost today was on the straights, so we've got to definitely dig deep, try to figure out what that is – whether it's power or drag – but we've still got a good package."

Red Bull rescued a dramatic victory for Max Verstappen with a powerful undercut and a bold second stop after his first-lap error put Lewis Hamilton in the ascendancy at the French Grand Prix.

A third consecutive win for Red Bull – two for Verstappen and one for Sergio Perez – boosted their leads in both the drivers' and constructors' championships.

Verstappen looked to be in trouble when he let Hamilton through at Turn 2, but his team's strategy turned the race on its head, extending his advantage to 12 points in the standings.

The championship leader – starting from pole – kept his nose in front at Turn 1 but then ran wide, exiting the track to give up position to Hamilton, who looked at ease at the front of the race.

Pit strategy proved pivotal, though, as Mercedes called in Valtteri Bottas – running in third – before team-mate Hamilton.

Red Bull followed as Verstappen boxed, causing Mercedes to react again, calling for "Hammer time" from their lead driver before bringing him in for a 2.1-second stop, the fastest of the three.

However, a flying out lap from Verstappen meant Hamilton could not quite get out ahead of his rival, instead settling in behind the Dutchman for a lengthy battle alongside Bottas.

Verstappen worked hard to keep Hamilton out of DRS range and gradually built a gap to the fading Silver Arrows that encouraged Red Bull to gamble with another stop and a switch to medium tyres.

Perez, who pitted after the other three, let Verstappen through to quickly take chunks out of the Mercedes lead, with Hamilton warned of a "painful" finish.

Bottas failed to hold Verstappen up, opening a gap for the rapid Red Bull and fuming at his team for delaying a second stop, with Perez soon following his team-mate through.

Red Bull cut it fine, but Verstappen eased past Hamilton on the penultimate lap after only a short tussle to land a significant blow in a thrilling title race.

Lewis Hamilton is confident Mercedes are in a good position to challenge Max Verstappen on Sunday despite Red Bull's latest strong showing at the French Grand Prix.

Verstappen leads the Formula One drivers' championship while Red Bull sit top of the constructors' standings.

Even when Verstappen crashed out of a chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix last time out, team-mate Sergio Perez delivered maximum points in his first win for the team.

It was the first time in the Hybrid Era there had been two different Red Bull drivers triumphant in consecutive races.

The Austrian outfit are set for another strong outing in France after Verstappen secured pole position and Perez qualified fourth fastest, aiming to extend his streak of four consecutive top-five finishes.

In his post-qualifying media duties, Verstappen described himself as "quite confident" heading into the race.

"I knew it was going to be better than the last time we were here but this good I didn't expect, so that's promising for us," he said.

"We just have to keep on going, keep on pushing to try to make it better."

However, Hamilton starts from second and Mercedes colleague Valtteri Bottas is third, giving the Silver Arrows a chance even against a car with no obvious flaws.

"Of course, it seems [Red Bull] are just strong everywhere," Hamilton said. "Street circuits, it doesn't seem to matter where they go, they're very strong and we've got some areas we just need to improve.

"Obviously today I heard that we're losing out mostly on the straights, so we'll try to figure-out what that is.

"But it's great that we are second and third. It puts us in the middle of the Red Bulls, it gives us a chance to really apply pressure tomorrow – but it's just as close as ever before.

"Maybe they seem to have eked a little bit further forwards than we were perhaps in Barcelona."

Hamilton is two wins shy of an unprecedented 100 in Formula One, but will have the more modest aim of correcting a worrying run of form on Sunday.

He was seventh in Monaco and 15th in Baku and has not missed out on the podium in three straight races in the Hybrid Era.

Max Verstappen feels his pole position for the French Grand Prix underlines the progress Red Bull are making as they take the Formula One title fight to Mercedes.

Mercedes are hoping to bounce back at Circuit Paul Ricard after chastening outings at the street circuits of Monaco and Baku.

But while they are close to Red Bull at the more traditional track in Le Castellet, they could not prevent Verstappen from claiming pole on Saturday with an advantage of 0.258 seconds to Hamilton.

Valtteri Bottas can also apply some pressure to Verstappen after the Finn came third, just ahead of the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who won a thriller in Baku last time out. 

Mercedes were dominant in the two French Grand Prix editions held since the race returned to the F1 calendar as Hamilton won from pole in 2018 and 2019.

But they will have to triumph from behind this time if they are to make it a hat-trick.

"So far it has been a really positive weekend on a track where it has been normally a bit difficult for us," Verstappen said after claiming his first pole since the opening race in Bahrain.

"FP2 was a bit of a turnaround for us - of course to get pole position was even better and really nice. There is some great promise from our side and I hope we can keep it up.

"No points were scored but for us it is a great day and we have to finish it off on Sunday and try to get the 25 points that we lost in Baku.

"I am confident [with our race car] actually, the car felt good in FP2 so I am looking forward to it."

The lost points in Baku referred to Verstappen suffering a heartbreaking tyre failure as he closed in on victory, though his pain would be eased slightly as Perez ensured a Red Bull triumph while Hamilton did not pick up any points.

It has been another difficult few days for Hamilton, who was pleased to end up on the front row for a race where weather could be a factor.

"A really, really hard weekend - mentally and just trying to get the car into a happy place," said the seven-time world champion, who trails Verstappen by four points.

"You wouldn't believe how many changes I have made over the time since FP1, going round and round kind of chasing the tail and then ending up coming back to something similar to where we started. 

"Congratulations to Max, they are incredibly quick, they've got a new engine this week and they are quick in the straights - a lot of time for them there.

"We have a race on our hands and we are loving the battle - we are going to keep pushing, fighting and giving it everything.

"Obviously in second you have at least a fighting chance down to turn one, plus there will be some interesting strategy and maybe some rain so a chance to see who is the rain master!"

Bottas is under pressure at Mercedes after a miserable start to the season but was satisfied with a solid weekend so far, having been competitive throughout practice.

"It has been a strong weekend, for sure a lot better than a couple of weeks ago, so at least we have seen the pace has been there," he said. "The last run in Q3 felt good for me.

"We have seen it is going to be close with Red Bull as it was in qualifying. Can't be too happy being third because it has been a strong weekend otherwise, but I think Red Bull were faster."

Yuki Tsunoda and Mick Schumacher crashed as two red flags in Q1 led to Lance Stroll being eliminated without setting a time.

Esteban Ocon, at his home race after signing a new deal with Alpine, was among the eliminated drivers in Q2, as was Sebastian Vettel, who took an impressive second place in Azerbaijan.

There was a big gap between the two leading teams and the rest in Q3, with Carlos Sainz ultimately taking fifth ahead of home favourite Pierre Gasly and the pole-sitter from the last two races, Charles Leclerc.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:29.990
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.258s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.386s
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.455s
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.850s
6. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.878s
7. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.997s
8. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.262s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.350s
10. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +1.392s

Lewis Hamilton finds himself under significant pressure in the Formula One title race, so will be relieved to see the French Grand Prix next up in his schedule.

Mercedes have had two miserable races in Monaco and Baku, so they enter the seventh event of the 2021 season trailing Red Bull by 26 points in the constructors' championship.

Hamilton, meanwhile, is four points behind Max Verstappen – who was cruelly denied victory in Baku last time out – in the drivers' standings.

The Briton is hoping to avoid missing the podium in three straight races for what would be the first time in the Hybrid Era, having finished seventh in Monaco and outside of the points in Azerbaijan.

He and Toto Wolff are optimistic that a return to Circuit Paul Ricard, which the team boss described as "a more traditional circuit", will help them turn their campaign around.

Hamilton triumphed there in 2018 and 2019, the first races in France after a nine-year absence from the F1 calendar. On both occasions Mercedes were dominant.

Michael Schumacher holds the record with eight wins at the French Grand Prix, a race where this year Hamilton hopes to reboot his attempt to move above the German by claiming an eighth world title.

Veteran Fernando Alonso was the last driver to win for a French team in this grand prix, doing it for Renault (now Alpine) 16 years ago in the 2005 season when he claimed his first championship.

After Verstappen triumphed around the streets of Monaco and Sergio Perez claimed a blockbuster success in Baku, Red Bull now face a pivotal test of their title aspirations.

If they emerge from three races in as many weeks in France and Austria (which hosts two) still in front, it will be an impressive and significant statement to Mercedes.

LAST TIME OUT

Remarkable late drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Perez grab victory after Verstappen crashed out and title rival Hamilton incredibly finished 15th.

Verstappen looked to be coasting to a second consecutive win and seventh straight podium – both career firsts, only to see a rear tyre blow out and end his race with five laps to go.

A red flag followed Verstappen's crash, meaning a standing start with Perez ahead of Hamilton on the front row of the grid for an incredible two-lap sprint finish following the delay.

In another twist, Hamilton – who had stressed on team radio the importance of staying cautious and having the long game in mind after Verstappen's retirement - looked to have seized an unlikely victory when he moved up the inside, only to make a mistake with his brake settings that saw him career off the circuit.

As well as Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly were the beneficiaries with impressive podium finishes for Aston Martin and AlphaTauri respectively.

Charles Leclerc, who had claimed pole for the second straight race, had to settle for fourth, while Valtteri Bottas was 12th as his desperately disappointing campaign continued.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN FRANCE

All eyes are on how Mercedes respond as they find themselves in a position they are not used to, as Red Bull relish their recent run and look to press home their advantage.

Hamilton missed a chance to reclaim the lead from Verstappen in Azerbaijan, but will like his chances to do so as he gets another opportunity at Le Castellet.

Bottas' woes this season have not all been his fault – he was unfortunate in Monaco – but he sits sixth in the standings and needs an immediate turnaround to save his Mercedes future.

Home hope Gasly comes into the race on form, with five straight points finishes and a podium in Baku, while another French driver – Esteban Ocon – is on a high having just signed a new deal with Alpine.

After watching Leclerc impress to claim back-to-back poles for a resurgent Ferrari, Carlos Sainz will race for the 125th time looking to end a run that has seen him appear in the most grands prix without winning or taking pole of any active driver. He has scored points in both his previous France races, while Leclerc made the podium in 2019.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Record in sight – Mercedes will again attempt to equal Ferrari as the team to have recorded the most one-twos in F1 qualifying ever (80). 

A first for Red Bull – Christian Horner's team come to this grand prix after winning two races in a row with a different driver for the first time in the Hybrid Era.

Perez pace – The Mexican is enjoying his best career streak of top-five finishes, having had four in a row including his Azerbaijan win.  

History made - Gasly was the first French driver to score a point in a French GP in this century when he came 10th in 2019, the first since the Jean Alesi finished fifth in 1997 at Magny-Cours. 

Poor conversion - Leclerc has recorded only two wins out of the nine pole positions in his F1 career (22.2%). If the Monegasque is on pole without claiming victory in this race, only Rene Arnoux (11.1%) and David Coulthard (16.7%) will have a lower ratio of victories from pole of drivers to have at least 10.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 105
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 101
3. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) – 69
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 66
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 52

Constructors

1. Red Bull – 174
2. Mercedes – 148
3. Ferrari – 94
4. McLaren – 92
5. AlphaTauri – 39

A dejected Max Verstappen declared that "sometimes you can hate this sport" after a late crash cost him victory in a dramatic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Verstappen looked destined to take the top step of the podium in Baku until he suffered a tyre blowout when he was leading with five laps to go.

The Red Bull driver booted his car after smashing into a wall, having missed the opportunity to extend his lead over Lewis Hamilton in the battle for the Formula One title.

Verstappen was able to retain his four-point advantage over Hamilton after the seven-time world champion locked up his tyres and ran into an escape road when the street circuit race restarted for a two-lap sprint.

Sergio Perez celebrated his first victory for Red Bull ahead of Sebastian Vettel, with Hamilton crossing the line in 15th place after being second on the grid when the race got under way again.

Verstappen was left to reflect on what might have been, but the Dutchman said he would not dwell on the cruel setback.

He said: "Frustrating and very disappointing so close to the finish to retire with a tyre blowout.

"It's a big shame. Sometimes you can hate this sport - for a few hours, then I'll be fine again.

"Honestly up until that point it was a great day – the car was on fire, I was just matching whatever I needed to do behind me, I was quite comfortably in the lead. It would have, let's say, have been an easy win. But, of course, there are no guarantees in the sport."

Verstappen added: "It's a shame because we missed out on the opportunity to make the gap bigger [in the championship] because we know when we get to normal tracks Mercedes normally are very strong. So it's a bit of a shame not to open the gap a bit more.

"Of course then at the end we got a bit lucky with Lewis going straight at Turn 1, so we are still leading the world championship, but it's not the way we wanted it to be.

"I wanted to really open up that gap today and win that race because it would have been great for the team."

Christian Horner described the "rollercoaster" of Red Bull's Azerbaijan Grand Prix success as Sergio Perez revealed he almost followed team-mate Max Verstappen out of the race.

Red Bull claimed consecutive wins for just the second time in the Hybrid Era, but it was Perez rather than Verstappen who led them to glory.

Verstappen was in complete control and set to head a Red Bull one-two when his left-rear tyre blew out in the closing stages. The same issue had ruled out Lance Stroll of Aston Martin.

That left the door open for title rival Lewis Hamilton to profit, but an error from the defending champion from the restart allowed Perez to race clear.

Red Bull boss Horner told Sky Sports: "I think I've aged about 20 years.

"We were staring down the barrel of our first one-two since 2016. Everything in control, we'd just checked in with Max, all okay, and then boom.

"The tyre went, and we don't know why. It looked like the wear was in good shape, so whether it's debris or something has happened.

"You can see it's a big place to have an accident. Thankfully, he's okay."

He added: "We were feeling at that point like the world had dropped from under us."

Worse might have been to come for Red Bull as Perez finished the race but then immediately broke down, receiving frantic messages over the radio as he celebrated his first victory for the team.

The Mexican, who has five consecutive top-five finishes for the first time in his career, said: "I'm so, so happy for today. Normally, Baku is pretty crazy.

"First of all, I have to say for Max I'm sorry. He did a tremendous race and really deserved the win, and it would have been incredible to get that one-two for the team.

"But at the end, it is a fantastic day for us. We were close to retiring the car but, luckily, we were able to finish the race. It was quite difficult all the way in the end."

Horner lauded Perez, whose victory moved Red Bull 26 points clear in the constructors' championship on a day Mercedes failed to score.

"He's a wily driver, a canny racer. He races really, really well," Horner said.

"We went from the despair of 'We've lost Max, we're going to lose the championship lead, Lewis could pass him at the restart and win the race'.

"It just shows the rollercoaster you go through in this sport.

"Suddenly it not being quite so bad, we've actually maintained the same lead in the drivers' championship leaving here and extended the constructors'."

Red Bull dedicated the victory to Mansour Ojjeh, the McLaren shareholder who passed away ahead of the race.

"He had the biggest heart and always carried the biggest smile," ex-McLaren man Hamilton posted on Twitter. "I am so grateful to have known such a man."

Remarkable late drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Sergio Perez handed victory after Max Verstappen crashed out and title rival Lewis Hamilton incredibly finished outside the points.

Verstappen looked to be coasting to a second consecutive Formula One win and seventh straight podium – both career firsts.

The Red Bull driver, four points ahead of Hamilton in the standings prior to the race, was well in the clear after earlier benefitting from a slow Hamilton pit stop.

But Verstappen's left-rear tyre blew out and ended his race, prompting the furious Dutchman to kick his car in anger.

Lance Stroll had encountered the same issue with the hard Pirelli tyres, swerving out of control when he had been fourth, albeit without pitting.

A red flag – requested by a concerned Red Bull team – followed Verstappen's crash with just three laps remaining, meaning a standing start with Perez ahead of Hamilton on the front row of the grid following the delay.

In another twist, Hamilton and his smoking brakes careered off the circuit from the restart and Perez raced away to lift Red Bull spirits.

With Hamilton way back in 15th, it meant a positive end to the day for Verstappen's team, even if the season leader will continue to rue his misfortune.

Both Verstappen and Perez jumped ahead of Hamilton when he was delayed in the pit lane by Pierre Gasly, having quickly caught pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.

Stroll's mishap threw a spanner in the works, yet Verstappen pulled ahead clear from the restart following the safety car, with Perez again getting the better of Hamilton.

Sebastian Vettel's climb to fourth and attempt to reel in old foe Hamilton looked the most likely source of intrigue in the closing stages, only for Verstappen's blow to bring the race to a standstill.

Hamilton admitted his error when his restart sensationally failed, though, and Perez hung on, his car breaking down moments after crossing the line before Vettel – who achieved a first Aston Martin podium.

Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen would like to see team bosses Toto Wolff and Christian Horner don boxing gloves to settle their differences.

Hamilton and Verstappen are engaged in a title tussle in Formula One but have so far maintained pleasantries off the track in front of the media.

The same cannot be said for Mercedes chief Wolff and Red Bull counterpart Horner.

When Horner this week suggested his opposite number "keep [his] mouth shut" as the Silver Arrows struggled in practice at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Wolff fired back that the Red Bull boss was "a bit of a windbag who wants to be on camera".

For Hamilton, who qualified in second, and Verstappen, in third, the row was the source of some amusement in Baku on Saturday.

"We should get them in a ring," Hamilton offered.

Verstappen added: "Yeah, but I think the weight division is a bit of a problem. In the height, the reach...

"I mean I'm all for a ring anyway, even in Formula One – instead of penalties!"

Pressed for further comment, Verstappen said: "It's Formula One. There are a lot of stakes involved so everyone wants to win, everyone is competitive.

"I guess it's just a natural thing and it's good for people to read, right? A bit of fire behind it."

Hamilton said: "Naturally, they're the two top leaders of the teams and they've both contributed hugely to the success of both teams.

"[They are] great leaders and of course they're head to head because we are head to head in this tight battle. We generally just like to do our talking on the track, so we're just keeping our heads down."

Hamilton did just that in qualifying, although he had not anticipated such a competitive display.

The defending champion was seventh in FP1, 11th in FP2 and "still pretty much a disaster" in third in FP3.

However, Hamilton was only denied a 101st career pole by Charles Leclerc, who again profited from a late red flag – this time caused by an incident involving team-mate Carlos Sainz, having himself crashed last time out.

"Honestly, it's one of the greatest feelings for us, for the difficult experience we've gone through and being out of the top 10 all weekend and really struggling to understand and extract performance from our car," Hamilton said.

"It feels fantastic. Congratulations to Charles, who did a fantastic job given the difficult circumstances out there.

"Yeah, it's just a bit overwhelming, really happy to be up here, grateful to have got the lap in, and it puts us in for a much different race than we anticipated after yesterday."

Verstappen was less impressed by how qualifying panned out, bemoaning "all this s*** all the time happening" when the session was cut short.

With Red Bull concurrently leading both the drivers' championship and the constructors' championship for the first time since 2013, Verstappen is looking for the first back-to-back wins of his career.

Not since the Hybrid Era began in 2014 have his team had two victories in a row.

Meanwhile, Lando Norris, a distant third in the standings, will start from P9 due to a three-place grid penalty.

Norris, who has earned points at a career-best 10 consecutive races, qualified in sixth but was deemed to have continued on the track under one of the session's record-equalling four red flags.

Charles Leclerc joked "it was quite a s*** lap" after he clinched pole position for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen.

In a qualifying session littered with crashes on Saturday, it was Ferrari's Leclerc who came out on top, recording a time of one minute and 41.218 seconds.

The frantic session on the streets of Baku saw four red flags raised, equalling the record for the most in qualifying, which was set ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2016.

Indeed, it was the fourth red flag which all but sealed Leclerc's pole, his second in a row after he started at the front of the grid in Monaco last time out – he is the first driver to take back-to-back poles this season.

World champion Hamilton struggled in practice, but was second when Yuki Tsunoda's crash into the barriers ended qualifying and came in a tenth of a second quicker than Verstappen, who had crashed out in the final practice session.

Leclerc was not best pleased with his efforts, but had no qualms about securing pole.

"It was quite a s*** lap I thought!" Leclerc, who set his fastest time with the help of a slipstream from Hamilton, joked to Sky Sports.

"There were like two or three corners where I did mistakes, but of course I had the big tow from Lewis in the last sector which helped me a little bit.

"But overall I think we would have been there or thereabouts for pole without the slipstream, so it's a good day. I did not expect to be as competitive as we were today. I was improving again [before] the red flag but it's like this, another pole, and I'm happy anyway."

Meanwhile, Hamilton was left to reflect on what he labelled a "monumental" result for Mercedes, with the team having struggled throughout the week – indeed, Valtteri Bottas will start in 10th on Sunday.

"We definitely weren't expecting that and this is such a monumental result for us because we've been struggling like you couldn't believe all weekend. You can see it," Hamilton said.

"We kept our composure. We've continued to have difficult discussions in the background and challenging one another, and just never taking no for an answer. We've moved around, made so many changes, over these two days. Just chasing our tail and it's been so difficult.

"It has been the biggest challenge in a long time. It has been a bit of a disaster."

Verstappen won in Monaco, with Red Bull aiming for consecutive race victories for the first time since 2014, but the young Dutchman could not hide his frustration with how the session panned out.

"It was just a stupid qualifying to be honest, but it is what it is," he said. "It's a street circuit so these things can happen, our car is strong so hopefully tomorrow we can score good points."

Pierre Gasly was in fine form during practice and took the momentum into qualifying, clinching fourth on the grid, while Carlos Sainz completed an impressive showing from Ferrari by coming in fifth.

The day ultimately belonged to Leclerc, who will be hoping for better luck than he had in Monaco, when a mechanical issue meant he could not build on his pole position and had to drop out of the race.

 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 1:41.218
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.232s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.345s
4. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.347s
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.358s
6. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.529s
7. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.699s
8. Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +0.993s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.109s
10. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +1.441s

Lewis Hamilton is not confident Mercedes will quickly bounce back from a difficult day at the Monaco Grand Prix where he lost the lead in the drivers' standings.

The defending Formula One champion had a 14-point advantage over second-placed Max Verstappen heading into Sunday's race.

But Hamilton, who had to settle for seventh in qualifying, was never in contention as Verstappen triumphed to move four points clear.

The Briton might still have limited the damage, but Mercedes endured a particularly tough time in the pit lane.

Sebastian Vettel stole ahead of Hamilton and Pierre Gasly when the three pitted, pushing the Silver Arrows superstar down the field, while team-mate Valtteri Bottas had to retire from second when mechanics failed to remove his front-right wheel.

"We do all our discussions in the background. We'll work together and try to come out of this stronger," Hamilton told Sky Sports.

"We underperformed as a team all weekend, from the get-go. We'll just put our focus onto the next race, and congratulations to Max and his team. They did a great job."

Although Hamilton is keen to look ahead to the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he does not expect the trip to Baku to see Mercedes' fortunes change significantly for the better.

"I would be guessing, but it's another street circuit, another one that's really cold, a very smooth circuit," he said.

"It's another one that we could easily struggle at again – similar to here. We're just going to have to try to work and see how we can minimise that loss."

This is the first time in Verstappen's career he has led the championship, but he agrees Mercedes are better suited to "normal tracks" and so is not getting carried away.

"If it [his name] is there at the end of the season, that would be great," Verstappen told a news conference. "There's still a long way to go.

"Of course it's great to bounce back after the last two races, where of course the gap got bigger. We still have to work hard because we know Mercedes, on normal tracks, are still the ones to beat."

Verstappen had never previously had a podium at Monaco – "I've always been quick around Monaco, I've just shunted a few too many times," he argued – but says this improved display is not reason to be overly optimistic in Baku.

"Baku is a completely different circuit," he said, adding: "You can't really compare with each other, but normally we should be competitive."

Max Verstappen went top of the Formula One drivers' standings for the first time in his career but admits he faces a huge fight to stay ahead of Lewis Hamilton.

The Red Bull star earned a maiden Monaco Grand Prix victory as Hamilton trailed in seventh, with the Mercedes team as a whole enduring a desperate day.

Valtteri Bottas was forced to retire from the race while running second when the pit crew were unable to remove a tyre, with Verstappen and fourth-placed Sergio Perez nudging Red Bull above Mercedes at the summit of the constructors' standings.

Neither Verstappen nor his team would be presumptuous enough to suggest this changing of the guard at the top of each championship is anything but potentially fleeting though, given the margins are so tight and this was just the fifth stop-off in a 23-race season.

"It's so special around here to win and to be for the first time on the podium here," Verstappen said. "It's an amazing race and you really have to keep your focus, but it's really cool.

"You never know what's going to happen, but it was all about looking after your tyres and finding a good stop gap of course. The others went earlier so that made it a bit easier for me, but it was pretty much in control.

"Of course you always want to win this grand prix. I remember when I was very little watching this grand prix and to be standing here of course I'm very proud.

"But I'm also thinking ahead. It's still a very long season, but this is a great way to continue."

Hamilton has won the last four championships and six of the last seven, while Mercedes are chasing an eighth consecutive team title.

They will have many better Sundays in the coming months, and a team statement on Twitter summed up their dismay at the Monaco outcome.

The statement said: "Tough one to swallow. This has been one of our hardest days as a team in a very long time. We have to accept it, own the failure, learn from it and move on from here."

Carlos Sainz finished second, with Verstappen keeping the Spaniard at a safe distance.

It was close to a nine-second gap at the finish, as Sainz delivered for a Ferrari side who had to stomach the pre-race blow of withdrawing pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.

Monaco native Leclerc majorly damaged his car with a heavy crash in qualifying, and despite subsequent assurances that he would be on the grid, Ferrari changed their minds just minutes before the race began, citing a problem with the left driveshaft.

As Leclerc licked his wounds, Sainz delivered a sterling drive for his first Ferrari podium finish. Even then, it felt bittersweet.

"It is a good result," said the 26-year-old Spaniard. "If you had told me before coming to Monaco that I would finish second, I would definitely have taken that.

"It's just the whole circumstances of the weekend, having Charles on pole, me missing out in qualifying yesterday on a good lap, it just maybe doesn't taste as good as it should.

"But if I reflect back in the week I will be very happy and proud of the weekend. And I think Ferrari as a team need to be proud about the team and the step they've done this year.

"When you see the other car not starting from pole, all of a sudden the responsibility relies on you, trying to salvage the weekend. I felt the team deserved at least a podium this weekend."

Third place went to Lando Norris, whose McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, a former winner in Monaco, could only finish in a lowly 12th place.

"I didn't think I'd be here," Norris said, at his post-race interview. "It's always a dream to be on a podium here.

"It's extra special, I didn't think it was going to happen. It's special here, so I'll cherish it."

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