Emboldened Mercedes going for the win in Australia, Leclerc and Perez struggle

Emboldened Mercedes going for the win in Australia, Leclerc and Perez struggle
Hamilton during qualifying
Hamilton during qualifying
Elated Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell said the Formula One championship is alive after qualifying just behind Red Bull's pole-sitter Max Verstappen at the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Russell will join Verstappen at the front of the grid for Sunday's race, with seven-times world champion Hamilton third as Mercedes savoured big performance gains at Albert Park after being well off the pace in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Russell's fastest lap was a quarter-of-a-second shy of reigning champion Verstappen's, and his thrill at the car's showing was even spiked with "a little bit" of disappointment to have missed out on pole.

"We weren’t expecting that, that’s for sure," a beaming Russell told reporters.

"We’ve got to go for the win. Max is going to be extremely fast, there’s no hiding that. I think it’s difficult to overtake around this circuit so the start, lap one, is going to be vital.

"But, you know, this result today is going to give us a huge amount of confidence -- regardless of what tomorrow brings -- over the course of the next four weeks.

"Because if we can deliver a performance like this with a car that is definitely quite a bit off the pace, (it) shows good promise for when we bring our first upgrade."

Hamilton's qualifying was his best result since Sao Paulo in last year's championship and he said it was "honestly incredible" that Mercedes were breathing down Verstappen's neck.

Verstappen, meanwhile, will not have Red Bull company at the front of the grid, with teammate Sergio Perez starting at the back after skidding off track and beaching himself in gravel during qualifying.

Hamilton said even with Mercedes' pace deficit, he and Russell might be able to work together to thwart Verstappen's hopes of a second win in three races.

"We have to expect they're going to be a quarter of a second, half a second at least quicker than us," added the Briton.

"But maybe we can just about hold on. Maybe the fact that there's two of us and only one Red Bull -- maybe with strategy, we can we can apply some pressure to them."


Charles Leclerc expressed disappointment after he could only manage seventh in qualifying, as he and teammate Carlos Sainz once again failed to bridge the gap to Red Bull.

Leclerc said he was frustrated after being caught behind Sainz during Saturday's third qualifying session, hampering his lap time.

"I don't know what happened in the second round of Q3, whether it was a miscommunication with Carlos," Leclerc told reporters. "But I found myself behind him for the first sector, which wasn't great."

He said the Ferrari was performing better in Albert Park than in its outing in Jeddah two weeks ago, blaming his own performance for his qualifying position as well as the miscommunication with Sainz.

"I feel like we are quite competitive, but I just didn't put everything together," Leclerc said.

"Honestly, the feeling is better, but again today I'm not particularly happy about the way I drove," he said. "I think the car was actually quite good."

Sainz, who will start in fifth behind fellow Spaniard Fernando Alonso, said Mercedes were much closer to contention than many realised.

"They are lot faster than what people think," he told Sky Sports.

"That car is quick. It is clearly not as quick as Red Bull, no one is, but if they put qualifying together they can be a very strong package."


Perez bemoaned a terrible day after a slide into gravel dented his championship hopes.

The Mexican, one point shy of teammate Verstappen in the Formula One title race, locked up at turn three at Albert Park and beached himself in the gravel on his first out lap in the opening session of qualifying.

Verstappen, meanwhile, took pole position, his first in Australia and second in the season's first three races.

"It was really bad, it was a terrible day. Already in FP3 we had this issue," Perez told reporters.

"We thought we fixed it but obviously we didn’t so I really hope that come tomorrow (on) race day we are able to fix it because otherwise it will be really difficult to race like this."

The qualifying skid followed trouble through free practice earlier on Saturday as Perez repeatedly slid off track.

He was confined to the team's garage for much of the practice session as engineers worked on his car.

It was a huge come-down for Perez, who won from pole at the last race in Jeddah and came to Albert Park declaring he could challenge Verstappen for the championship.

Perez declined to talk about his car's problem but team boss Christian Horner suggested there might be an issue with the car's engine management software.

"It was just a horrible (practice) session," Horner told Sky TV.

"That first run on the soft tyres nothing went right for him and then you end up on the back foot and pushing too hard and then you try and nick a bit in the braking zones and so on.

"Going into qualifying it wasn’t the ideal build-up for him.

"Confidence is so crucial and to that point this week and yesterday he looked very, very strong."