Lewis Hamilton is embracing the element of competition in the 2021 Formula One season after taking his 100th career pole in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Hamilton tops the standings three races in having won two of them, victories in Bahrain and Portugal coming either side of Max Verstappen's triumph at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion was involved in another tussle with his rival on Saturday, edging out the Red Bull driver to reach a notable personal milestone.

Hamilton was 0.036 seconds quicker than Verstappen at the end of Q3, with Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas making up the top three 0.132s back.

The Briton is the first F1 driver to manage a century of pole positions, with his first coming back in 2007 in Canada. Racing greats Michael Schumacher (68) and Ayrton Senna (65) are second and third on the all-time list respectively.

He has managed 10 poles in five of the past six seasons, while his haul of 12 in 2016 is his best tally for a single year.

The 36-year-old has recorded 58 wins when starting from first on the grid, only failing to finish among the points on two occasions, albeit not counting for nine retirements.

And it is not only the milestone which has boosted Hamilton ahead of Sunday's showdown, but also the challenge presented by Verstappen, who sits eight points behind him in the standings.

"It's always difficult to assess in the moment but wow, I've been racing a long time and the 100 mark is something I don't think anybody and particularly me thought I would ever get to that number," Hamilton told a news conference.

"It's been so enjoyable and it's crazy that it is 100 and it felt like one of the first. That for me is even more special. There have been so many qualifying sessions, so many near misses, so many mistakes and so many moments of growth and I love how close it is between us all.

"I think that's great for the fans and I think that's exciting for me also. And also the people that are only just behind us."

For his part, Verstappen is confident he can push Hamilton all the way.

"It's difficult to predict at the moment. I think we were quite decent in the long runs but [Mercedes] looked strong," he said.

"We know that it's hard to overtake around here and to be following closely, but I'm always optimistic and positive that we can do a good job and have a good race, and I hope, of course, that it's going to be as close as today."

There was not so much joy for Verstappen's Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, who went spinning in Q3 and could only claim eighth.

He said: "I just felt a bit weak going into qualifying, and it was just getting worse and worse throughout.

"I had a bit of an issue with my [left] shoulder through qualifying, and I was just feeling bad, all the way through it. 

"I've been with the doctors from the team, and it should be all good for tomorrow."

Lewis Hamilton could not believe how far he has come after recording the 100th pole position of his career at the Spanish Grand Prix.

The seven-time world champion emerged triumphant from a three-way qualifying battle with Max Verstappen and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton ended up 0.036 seconds clear of Verstappen, with Bottas just 0.132s behind in third as none of the drivers improved in their second runs of an entertaining Q3 session.

Charles Leclerc took an impressive fourth for Ferrari, with Sergio Perez having to settle for eighth in the second Red Bull after spinning in his first run of the top-10 shoot-out.

Hamilton was overjoyed to come out on top as he continues to pull out impressive results despite the improved pace of rivals Red Bull in 2021.

"I will always remember that one," said Hamilton, who leads the drivers' standings by eight points.

"Wow, I can't believe we are at 100 and it's really down to the men and women back at the factory who are continuously raising the bar and just never giving up.

"The support I have, it's been a dream for me to work with these guys. The journey we have been on, it has been immense.

"Who would have thought at the end of 2012 when we made the decision to partner, we'd be qualifying at 100? I feel very humble and grateful – and I am ecstatic it's like my first!"

Hamilton revealed some changes to the car ahead of qualifying had him worried throughout much of Saturday.

The Briton added: "We have been strong all weekend and I made some changes - I had a bit of anxiety about the changes.

"For qualifying, you're always trying to make the car better, but it is a bit of a gamble because you have to keep the race in mind also.

"We made the change and immediately I thought, 'This is the wrong one'. It was my call at the end, but it was really hard.

"The changes that we made, I had so much understeer, the car was being lazy and wouldn't turn corners the way I wanted. I was making small adjustments to get the car to turn.

"So that's why I was behind the whole qualifying. I was making small tweaks here and there to make pace but the first lap [in Q3] was the best lap of the session - which was great."

Verstappen – who topped a Q2 session that saw Sebastian Vettel, Lance Stroll and Pierre Gasly among the eliminated drivers - was right there with Hamilton as a thrilling title battle continued.

"It was good, to be that close, we can be happy with that," said Verstappen. "I struggled in Q1 but we sorted out the balance in Q2 which was good.

"Q3 both laps were pretty decent, the second run was a little worse. It is quite gusty.

"Second for us is very good. We know they are hard to beat around here.

"To be that close, we can be happy with that – it is a long run down to turn one on Sunday, we have to make sure we get a good start and then see if the pace is there."

Bottas, who had made Hamilton wait for his 100th pole by topping the timesheet in Portugal, was competitive once again.

"That was close," he said. "Definitely was in the battle for the pole and I think the first runs in Q3 were faster ones.

"I had snap at the apex at turn 10 and lost a tenth or so, and that's the margins of the pole. With a strong package, it's going to be a good fight between us and Red Bull on Sunday no doubt."

The closest driver to Hamilton in terms of F1 pole positions is Michael Schumacher on 68.

Hamilton now has only 29 fewer poles than the rest of the current F1 drivers combined (129), while he is seeking a sixth race win in Barcelona that would the tie record held by Schumacher.

If he does it, the Mercedes star will lead the win rankings in 16 of the 32 tracks he has raced on during his illustrious career.

Verstappen took the first of his 11 career victories in Barcelona as an 18-year-old back in 2016, becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history, though Hamilton has won each of the four editions to be held since.


PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:16.741
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.036s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.132s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.769s
5. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.839s
6. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.879s
7. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.881s
8. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.960s
9. Lando Norris (McLaren) +1.269s
10. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.406s

Max Verstappen will need another famous performance at the venue of his first Formula One win as he looks to strike back against Lewis Hamilton at the Spanish Grand Prix.

The Dutchman took the first of his 11 career victories in Barcelona as an 18-year-old back in 2016, becoming the youngest race winner in F1 history.

But Hamilton, who leads the drivers' championship by eight points, loves this circuit too and has won the four editions to be held since.

World champion Hamilton will be thrilled to arrive in Catalunya with an advantage, having won the season opener in Bahrain and battled back to a heroic P2 after crashing at Imola before winning in Portugal.

Those three results have come despite Mercedes starting the 2021 season at pace disadvantage to Red Bull, who are looking to hit back before the calendar moves to Monaco, where Mercedes often thrive.

LAST TIME OUT

An excellent start to the 2021 season continued for Hamilton as he produced a masterful display to win the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Hamilton started from second, behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas in pole, but produced another inspired performance.

The Briton initially trailed Bottas, who caught his colleague cold and pushed further clear coming out of a safety car while Verstappen got ahead of the seven-time champion too.

But Hamilton passed Verstappen and then Bottas to claim the lead and remained in the driving seat during a tactical battle.

The Red Bull driver ultimately took second ahead of the Finn, who did at least claim the extra point for fastest lap.

Sergio Perez was fourth, his best finish for Red Bull, while Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc rounded out the top six.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN CATALUNYA

After they battled in Portugal, Hamilton and Verstappen both said they trust each other to race wheel-to-wheel in "super-hard but fair" fights for position, with the drivers emphasising the respect they have for one another.

It is a thrilling title scrap between the established frontrunner and the leader of the next generation that should take some time to settle given how close the two cars are for pace.

Indeed, Hamilton said the two would soon become "sick of the sight of each other" over a long season where 23 races are scheduled.

The second drivers on each team, Bottas and Perez, will need to mix it with the top two quickly or they risk becoming an afterthought in the drivers' standings even before the season has truly got going.

There were signs of fight in Portugal as Bottas took pole while Perez led the race for a period after the leaders had pitted, becoming the first man for over a decade to have led a grand prix for four different teams.

Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz will battle for Spanish superiority on Sunday in cars with similar pace levels, with both having scored points in two out of three races so far.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

The joy of six? - Hamilton is one win away from equalling Michael Schumacher as the driver to have recorded most wins in Catalunya (six). If he does it, the Mercedes star will lead the win rankings in 16 of the 32 tracks he has raced on during his illustrious career.

Super streak - Hamilton has won five out of his last seven races in Barcelona (four from pole), including the last four from 2017 to 2020. If he wins here, the Briton will surpass Schumacher (2001–2004) as the driver to have recorded the most consecutive wins at the circuit.

Famous 50 - Bottas equalled David Coulthard with his 49th podium in Portugal and could reach 50 at the Spanish GP. Only one other driver in F1 history has had more podiums without winning the world title -  Rubens Barrichello (57).

Sainz leads Spanish charge - The Ferrari driver has earned 34 points at this race, more than at any other grand prix. However, sixth place is his best finish here. A Spanish driver has earned points in each of the last 12 Spanish GPs since 2009, although one has not reached the podium since Fernando Alonso in 2013 (his last F1 win).

Norris on the button – The Briton has scored points in eight straight grands prix, the best run in his F1 career. That run has included four straight top-five finishes - he is the first McLaren driver to do that since Jenson Button in 2012.
 

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS 

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 69
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 61
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 37
4. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 32
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 28

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 101
2. Red Bull – 83
3. McLaren – 53
4. Ferrari – 42
5. Alpine – 13

Lewis Hamilton is relishing his Formula One title fight with Max Verstappen and expects the battle to go to the wire, by which point the pair are "going to be sick of each other".

Defending champion Hamilton landed another blow at Sunday's Portuguese Grand Prix, winning ahead of Verstappen to stretch his championship lead to eight points.

The Mercedes and Red Bull rivals have been the top two in all three races so far this season, with Verstappen boosted by the apparent superior pace in his car.

That superiority was less apparent in Portimao, where the Dutchman repeatedly complained of a lack of grip, even telling Sky Sports: "I hope we don't come back."

But Verstappen was still Hamilton's nearest challenger and the Briton is enjoying a "great fight".

"It's very tight," Hamilton told a news conference. "I saw that he'd gone in for the fastest lap and got it but obviously Valtteri [Bottas] ended up with it at the end.

"As you can see, it's a great fight between Mercedes and Red Bull – I'm sure also down the field.

"It's clear that we just have to continue. We're going to be pushing each other right until the last race.

"We're going to be sick of each other, I imagine, or at least sick of racing, because there are so many races."

Verstappen responded: "It's close. I wish it was closer. But it's a long season and we can't afford to have any retirements or silly mistakes, so we have to keep on doing what we're doing."

Hamilton won the championship by 124 points in 2020 and even then Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas was the man in second.

Although he suggested Red Bull's standards slipped this week – seemingly relating to the grip issue – Hamilton welcomed the competition.

"I'm massively excited and driven," Hamilton said. "I think we all are, as a team, to be in the fight with Red Bull.

"This weekend I feel like Red Bull lost a little bit of performance, because I don't think we improved. From the last race to here, I think they took a slight step closer to us for whatever reason.

"But this is great. This is what we all live for. This is what we live and breathe for, to get up and fight and try to pull out the smallest bits of performance to be able to fight a great competitor."

Despite his own complaints, Verstappen acknowledged Red Bull cannot afford to make excuses if they plan to beat Mercedes.

He added: "Clearly we still have to improve and do better because we should be fast on every single track in every single condition, because the track is the same for everyone."

Lewis Hamilton insisted Sunday's win at Portimao was "such a tough race" despite easing clear of Red Bull title rival Max Verstappen and pole-sitting Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton qualified in second and fell to third early in the race as Verstappen raced past him coming out of a safety car situation.

But the defending champion's skill and speed came to the fore as he outmanoeuvred the two men ahead of him.

Hamilton also reeled in Sergio Perez, who had stayed out on his tyres in a desperate attempt to hold up the 2021 Formula One leader.

A comfortable margin of victory gave Hamilton a second win of the season, having finished second in the other race, but he was keen to emphasise the difficulty of the task.

The Mercedes superstar, while acknowledging "today wasn't all perfect", said: "That was such a tough race, physically and mentally, just keeping everything together.

"It was very windy out there, obviously, so it was very easy to put a foot wrong.

"I didn't quite get as good a start as Valtteri and then lost out on the restart, which I was not happy about, naturally. I really had to try to position myself the best I could.

"I think Max made a mistake at some point through the lap, which was perfect. I knew that was going to be the lap I was going to get as close as I could to him in the last sector.

"With Valtteri, I had to make the move early on before the tyres were destroyed. I managed to just get him at Turn One, just where I wanted him. It was a great race."

Verstappen had bemoaned the tricky conditions after qualifying, saying the Portuguese Grand Prix had "not been a lot of fun to drive".

"Hopefully everything stabilises," he added on Saturday, but Turn 14 continued to test the Red Bull, errors at that corner letting Hamilton in and later denying the Dutchman the fastest lap as he ran wide.

"I think this was a bit of an odd weekend in terms of grip," Verstappen said. "We were not on top of it, but we'll see what we can do in Barcelona."

Bottas, who profited to claim the fastest lap but finished third, was not happy either.

"It was a little tricky day today," the Finn said. "I don't know what happened in the first stint, I just didn't have the pace for unknown reasons.

"I need to have a look at that. The second stint was pretty good but there was an issue with some sensor or something."

Lewis Hamilton continued his excellent start to the 2021 Formula One season with a masterful display to win the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Defending champion Hamilton – pursuing a record-breaking eighth title – won the opener at Bahrain and battled back to a heroic P2 after a crash at Imola last month.

That gave the Mercedes superstar a one-point lead over Max Verstappen in the standings heading to Portimao, and he increased that advantage on Sunday.

Hamilton started from second, behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas in pole, but produced another inspired performance.

The Briton initially trailed Bottas, who caught his colleague cold and pushed further clear coming out of a safety car for Kimi Raikkonen's tangle with team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi.

Verstappen beat Hamilton into Turn One to climb to second after the safety car and was then hunting Bottas.

But after failing to sufficiently close the gap, Verstappen lost pace on the remainder of that lap and Hamilton went past him as they crossed the same section of the track again.

It was Turn One again that gave Hamilton the opening for another smart manoeuvre, making use of DRS to take the outside when Bottas stayed tight on the inside.

Hamilton informed his team those overtakes had left his tyres "pretty shot", prompting a tactical battle.

Verstappen pitted first and Bottas quickly followed, but a slower stop meant he was soon caught and overtaken despite emerging ahead of the Red Bull.

Hamilton had enough of a lead to pit without falling behind either man, instead eventually catching Sergio Perez, who had been left out on the track until that point, perhaps hoping for a safety car.

There would be no further twist as Hamilton claimed a second consecutive Portimao triumph, leading a familiar podium – Hamilton, Verstappen and Bottas have now shared the steps on a record 15 occasions.

Verstappen missed out on the consolation of the fastest lap, his best time deleted after both he and Bottas, who would claim the extra point, had pitted for the final lap while Hamilton opted not to take the risk.

'YOU'RE RACING HIM!'

So slow was Perez by the time Hamilton caught him, the Mercedes man thought he was lapping a straggler.

Apparently unaware he had not himself been leading the race to that point, Hamilton appealed for a blue flag for the Mexican.

"No, you're racing him," replied Mercedes over the team radio. "He's yet to stop."

THE MIDFIELD MASTER

While Hamilton is again proving himself to be the best driver among those in the leading cars, Lando Norris heads the midfield battle.

He was fourth in Bahrain and third in Imola but this time had to settle for fifth – beaten by Perez for the first time this season.

That was an impressive result after qualifying in seventh, Norris following Bottas and Verstappen in making a fast restart after the safety car but, unlike those two, making his advantage last.

Valtteri Bottas feels he has learned important lessons from his previous race after claiming pole position for the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Bottas qualified eighth last time out at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix as Max Verstappen took victory for Red Bull.

Verstappen had been tipped to grab pole in Portimao but, after struggling in the windy conditions, he was denied the fastest lap after a correction to avoid a crash at Turn 4 saw his time chalked off for exceeding track limits.

Bottas will start Sunday's race from the front of the grid, denying team-mate Lewis Hamilton the 100th pole of his career by 0.007 seconds, with Verstappen in third.

The Finnish driver was in buoyant mood after tying the great Jackie Stewart on 17 career pole positions, especially given his inauspicious drive at Imola last month, when a crash with George Russell ended a disappointing race weekend.

"It definitely put a smile on my face, because in the first two races of the season, the qualifying really from my side… at least the Q3 session hasn't been the strong point and getting everything out of the car and tyres to work well has been a bit of a weakness," he said.

"But now, it felt like things are starting to go in the right direction. I've been feeling strong all weekend so I knew it was possible and it definitely makes me really happy to put it together in Q3 and be on pole. And as a team as well, with the pressure and with the battle from Red Bull, it's good to be ahead.

"Mentally, I took all the learning points [from Imola], and there were a lot of lessons from that last race, as always. So, I took those, and the rest that I should forget, I completely moved aside and forgot those and moved on."

Hamilton was able to secure a 71st front-row lockout for Mercedes since 2014 but struggled throughout the session, while even the softer compound in Q3 did not yield sufficient grip for better times.

"There was honestly so much time available and I just didn't put it together," said the reigning world champion. "It's really tricky conditions here. The surface of the track is very smooth, and not a lot of grip and the tyres – you need extra laps to get the temperatures even though it's a really nice day.

"Then the balance… one minute you have grip; the next minute, you don't, so it's very tricky for everyone.

"It felt quite good in P3 today and on that Q2 lap it felt solid, and I thought that we were in the right window but it's temperatures... there are gusts of wind so you can be unlucky and get tail winds that perhaps you wouldn't normally get on particular corners."

Verstappen, meanwhile, is hoping for better on Sunday after admitting the lack of grip has made little about the weekend enjoyable so far.

Having won from third at Imola, he remains hopeful Red Bull's straight-line speed will be enough to put the Mercedes under pressure as he aims to overturn the one-point gap to Hamilton in the standings.

"It's been a bit hit and miss anyway, the whole weekend; we're just struggling a lot to find the balance," said Verstappen, who, like the front two, will start the race on medium tyres.

"To be honest, I didn't enjoy one single lap this weekend, just because of the state of the track. I mean the layout is amazing but the grip we are experiencing I don't think is nice. I know it's the same for everyone but for me personally, it's just not enjoyable to drive.

"We'll see [on Sunday] what we can do. It's not so easy to follow here but if we have good pace then, for sure, we'll put the pressure on."

Max Verstappen's title challenge was blown slightly off course as a deleted lap time handed pole position at the Portuguese Grand Prix to Valtteri Bottas.

The Red Bull driver was victorious last time out at Imola and his team again looked to have the best pace in Portimao ahead of qualifying.

But Verstappen complained of a lack of straight-line speed in Q1 and struggled with grip throughout amid windy conditions on the Algarve.

And a correction to avoid a crash at Turn 4 saw a lap that would have been the fastest of Q3 chalked off for exceeding track limits, and he could not replicate it on his sole flying lap that did count.

It meant Bottas claimed pole with a time of one minute and 18.348 seconds, with Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton denied a 100th career pole as he took second, missing out by just 0.007secs.

Verstappen, whose disqualified lap was a 1:18.209, conceded he has found little joy out of the challenge presented by the Algarve International Circuit.

"Whole qualifying was very difficult to drive, was struggling with grip," he said in the post-session interviews. 

"I was quite confident I could do another good lap, [but a] car in front in the last corners disturbs you.

"It's of course not ideal, we'll try to fight them [Mercedes] in the race and see what we can do. Hopefully everything stabilises, up until now it's not been a lot of fun to drive here."

Bottas' emotions were a marked contrast, the Finn left unsurprisingly satisfied with the 17th pole position of his career.

"Feels like it's been a while. It's been a weak point for me in the first two races, getting the tyres to work," said Bottas. 

"The team have been working hard all weekend and we have a good position for tomorrow.

"Starting with the medium tyre tomorrow is good, and it opens up opportunities that we can go as long as we want in the first stint.

Hamilton added: "A great job by Valtteri and our teams for us both to be on the front row, it was not expected. We have to be happy for that, it was not the perfect lap but I gave it everything.

"You can never be satisfied, we exist to keep moving forward but I'm happy with what we're doing and the steps we're taking."

The Red Bulls were far from the only ones to struggle with the wind, McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo failing to make it out of Q1, he will start 16th.

But there was better news for Sebastian Vettel, who made it through to Q3 for the first time since joining Aston Martin.

Vettel will start 10th in a race that will provide plenty of intrigue after an unanticipated shakeup at the front, with both Red Bulls behind an all-Mercedes front row but expected to have better race pace.

Sergio Perez, who will start fourth, told Sky Sports: "I never really got on top of the car in this session, I lacked a bit getting into a rhythm.

"Not really everything worked but at least we have a good starting position, our race pace seems to be better."

If that proves to be the case, it will set the stage for a fascinating duel on Sunday.


PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 1:18.348
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.007s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.398s
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.542s
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.691s
6. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.694s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.768s
8. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.958s
9. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1.127s
10. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1.311s

This was not how the start of the season was supposed to pan out for Red Bull, who had the fastest car in Formula One testing.

Superstar Max Verstappen has finished second and first over the opening two weeks, yet he still trails Lewis Hamilton by a point. Mercedes are also on top again in the constructors' championship, seven points clear even after Valtteri Bottas crashed out of the epic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

"To come away leading both championships almost felt like a get out of jail free card, because our rivals didn't maximise the opportunity we gave them," Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff said.

Verstappen is certainly in a title race, but seven-time champion Hamilton will be the favourite as long as he has the lead.

There is pressure on Red Bull to change that this week when the season continues with the Portuguese Grand Prix.

LAST TIME OUT

It would perhaps be easier to start with what did not happen at Imola, such was the drama.

Verstappen was the victor, while Hamilton came in second, but that does not even start to tell the full story, with incident right from the outset in the pouring rain.

The Mercedes driver started from pole but was trailing and damaged by Turn One, pushed wide by a rapid Verstappen dash.

Worse was to come for Hamilton as he careered off into a gravel trap midway through the race and attempted to get his sparking Silver Arrow back to the pit lane as Verstappen streaked clear.

But an unexpected intervention gave Hamilton a reprieve, with a crash – not the only one – between Bottas and George Russell prompting a suspension of the race.

That meant Verstappen had to restore his advantage after a nervy restart, while Hamilton resumed from ninth and weaved through the field to finish a distant second, retaining his season lead with a late fastest lap.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT PORTIMAO

Now that Hamilton has proven the worth of the W12 car – previously dismissed by Bottas as "undriveable" – Mercedes might expect a more straightforward weekend.

Hamilton won at the Algarve International Circuit last year, after all.

But the tricky circuit, dubbed 'the rollercoaster', could encourage another eventful outing, particularly with Verstappen keen to ensure he has not missed his chance to pull clear over the past two grands prix.

The battle below the top two teams is similarly intriguing, with McLaren's Lando Norris as high as third in the standings after following up a fourth place in the opener by taking third last time out. Ferrari's Charles Leclerc, meanwhile, is fourth in the standings.

Neither McLaren nor the Scuderia had the pace to stick with Hamilton when his crash gave them a rare opportunity to compete with the Mercedes superstar, but those two teams will be determined to prove they are the best of the rest.

Sebastian Vettel's challenge right now is simply to get a point on the board after coming 15th in back-to-back races.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Reaching the Max – Having either won (twice) or secured pole position (twice) in each of the past three races, Verstappen is enjoying the best run of his career.

Hundred up for Ham – Hamilton's pole position at Imola was his 99th in F1, meaning he could this week become the first driver to reach a century. This is the same circuit where the Briton passed Michael Schumacher's record for race wins last season.

Keep your friends close – While challenging Hamilton, Verstappen also finally has competition again from within his own garage. Sergio Perez qualified in second last time out, the first time Verstappen had been beaten in qualifying by a team-mate in 19 races.

Yet so far – Leclerc is fourth in the standings and all too often fourth on race day. The Ferrari man has gone 15 races without a podium but has finished fourth on four occasions during that span.

Fail to Finnish – Bottas will hope to avoid a career first following his retirement last time out. In his 158-race career, he has never failed to place at consecutive grands prix.

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS

Drivers

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 44
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 43
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 27
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 20
5. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 16

Constructors

1. Mercedes – 60
2. Red Bull – 53
3. McLaren – 41
4. Ferrari – 34
5. Aston Martin – 7

Lewis Hamilton believes his remarkable recovery to finish second at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday will prove "very valuable" this season.

In the second race of the year, Hamilton seemed set for a lowly finish at best.

Having lost first place to Max Verstappen at Turn One on the first lap of an epic affair, the defending champion, chasing his rival, ran off into a gravel trap midway through the grand prix.

Hamilton was briefly stuck against the wall, struggling to reverse his car back onto the track, before the W12 limped towards the pit under a shower of sparks.

But a red flag prompted by an incident involving team-mate Valtteri Bottas then brought the race to a standstill.

Hamilton had been ninth and a lap down, yet the restart allowed him to weave through the field and claim P2, behind Verstappen but still ahead of the Red Bull man in the drivers' championship.

"I think, without doubt, getting back to second and getting these points will be very valuable through the season," said the Briton.

"If I'd lost 25 points, that would have been hard to recover based on the fact that [for] Red Bull it's the first time that they've had a championship-winning car.

"Their car is incredibly fast. They were faster than us this weekend, definitely in qualifying trim but it looks like a little bit also in race trim.

"I don't know if they made a couple of mistakes – I think they did, Max did in qualifying for example otherwise he would have been on pole.

"But we've got a real close battle. We love the fact that it's a close battle and it's great to see McLaren back up there after such a long time, it's great to see Ferrari looking strong.

"So, there's going to be a lot of exciting races up ahead and challenging for all of us in so many different ways."

Although Hamilton's resurgence prevented Verstappen from taking an early lead in the standings, the Dutchman was delighted to land a blow in the title tussle, having trailed the Mercedes man in the season opener.

But he was also not getting carried away after a first win of the year.

"It's a very long season. We just have to keep on working very hard," Verstappen said. "I'm very happy with the result today, of course, but that's today.

"I'm of course going to be happy about today, but tomorrow, we start again. We have to keep on improving because there's still a lot of work to be able to keep doing this the whole season.

"It's great to be fighting against Lewis, Mercedes who, I think, as a team, have been so dominant and they're very difficult to beat.

"To be able to sit here now, now two races in a row, we were very, very competitive – that's very promising but no guarantees."

With his nose pressed against the wall and rivals crashing elsewhere on the track in torrid Imola rain, Hamilton could easily have retired following his crash.

He was not to know then that the collision between Bottas and George Russell would provide a reprieve, but he was delighted to be able to continue and learn "an amazing lesson" regardless.

"I remember just sitting there, looking at the barrier, and I refused to think that the race was over," Hamilton said. "I refused to believe that the race was done.

"I could have obviously just turned the car off and got out but I'm grateful that I didn't.

"I'm grateful that I did do a reverse and then, after that, just kind of getting out the car and trying to switch the anger and turn it into positive energy so that I could get back in and race forwards.

"It's an amazing lesson to be sent and experience."

And Hamilton, so often starting from the front of the grid, actually relished the chance to blaze past the opposition from ninth place.

"I loved it," he added. "That's how my career actually started as a kid, coming through.

"We had a really dodgy, old go-kart, so I was always starting at the back. It just took me back to my roots."

Lewis Hamilton apologised for his error at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but was relieved to be able to secure an outstanding P2 on Sunday.

Defending Formula One champion Hamilton, who started from pole, looked to have blown his chances of a podium finish when he ran off into a gravel trap while chasing Max Verstappen midway through the race.

But as his Mercedes limped back to the pit lane a lap down, an incident involving Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton's one-time reserve George Russell brought out the red flag.

Neither man involved in the crash could continue, although both avoided injury, but the stoppage gave Hamilton time to regroup.

That he did and the Silver Arrows superstar climbed from ninth to second, behind only Verstappen in a stunning display of resolve.

"Awesome job, guys," the Briton told his team radio. "Apologies for that mistake earlier on."

After congratulating Verstappen and third-placed Lando Norris in the post-race presentation, Hamilton said: "On my side, it was not the greatest of days.

"It was the first time I've made a mistake in a long time, but I was grateful I was able to bring the car home still."

He added: "I was really, really grateful that we got to get going again and to get some points for the team. That was really important."

Having set the fastest lap time late in the race, too, Hamilton still leads the drivers' championship, a point ahead of Verstappen.

But he said such a scenario was not on his mind as he prepared to restart.

"I wasn't thinking about it," he said. "I was just trying to get over the gutting feeling it is when you make a mistake and just moving on from it, learning from it real quick.

"You don't have time to dwell on it. So, that's what I did, get back into racing spirit.

"I didn't know if we'd be able to overtake, because off-line was really wet, but I still had some really fun battles with all the guys."

Verstappen is not concerned by his placing in those standings, however, responding: "It's a long season. We'll stay calm."

The Dutchman was one of the few drivers to enjoy himself in difficult conditions, most notably in the approach to Turn One as he pushed past Hamilton.

"I surprised myself," Verstappen said. "Last week we were struggling a little bit off the line, but we worked really hard to make that better.

"In these tricky conditions, we did a great job."

Max Verstappen claimed victory at a remarkable Emilia Romagna Grand Prix where Lewis Hamilton twice sustained damage and a crash involving Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas prompted a red flag.

An epic race encouraged optimism for a genuine title tussle in Formula One in 2021, with drama right from the outset and Hamilton fighting hard to rescue a superb second-placed finish.

The defending champion had started from pole, with Verstappen qualifying in third, behind Red Bull colleague Sergio Perez.

But Verstappen claimed the lead from Turn One in the rain at Imola, racing up alongside Hamilton and forcing his championship rival wide, where he sustained right wing damage.

While chaos ensued behind them, Hamilton held off Charles Leclerc to ensure he remained the biggest threat to Verstappen, with a tactical battle briefly allowed to develop.

Verstappen pitted first on lap 28, with Hamilton following a lap later and coming out behind the Dutchman following a slow stop.

But a manic spell then shook up the race again. First, Hamilton ran off into a gravel trap and desperately sought to reverse back onto the track.

The Briton was limping back to the pit lane a lap down under a shower of sparks, emitted by his Silver Arrow, when a further incident brought out the safety car.

Bottas collided with Mercedes prospect George Russell, driving for Williams, and both cars crashed in spectacular fashion, with the drivers emerging from the wreckage to angrily blame one another over the team radio.

The red flag soon followed, with wreckage spread across the track and a 30-minute suspension required, giving Hamilton time to regroup.

He resumed from ninth, able to unlap himself, with Verstappen forced to build a healthy lead again from Lando Norris after a slightly nervy restart.

Verstappen had retired at each of the three Italian races in 2020 but avoided a similar fate this time and the focus in the closing stages was instead on Hamilton's progress.

The Mercedes man picked off his opponents one by one, eventually streaking past Leclerc to move into position for a podium place once more.

Only Norris in the McLaren stood between Hamilton and a phenomenal P2 and he patiently chased down his compatriot to limit the damage and somehow emerge from this race a point ahead of Verstappen.

'AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT'

As the race got back underway following his crash, Russell posted on Twitter: "Thanks for all the messages. I'm fine, just disappointed.

"At the end of the day, it's an unfortunate incident. You're entitled to defend your position. But at 330kph, you have to respect the speed and the conditions when doing so. Gutted for the team. They deserved more today."

That was the second crash that ruled a driver out, with Nicholas Latifi earlier colliding with Nikita Mazepin to almost instantly exit the grand prix.

The subsequent safety car brought its own share of incident – Perez hit with a 10-second penalty after running wide and overtaking two cars to recover fourth.

Mick Schumacher went into a wall under the safety car, meanwhile, and lost his front wing.

TONE SET BEFORE THE START

The weather was always likely to cause havoc and the drivers took to the track to test their tyres ahead of the race. Even that did not go smoothly.

Fernando Alonso crashed into the wall, while the brakes on the Aston Martin cars caught fire.

That issue meant Sebastian Vettel had to start from the pitlane, and he was later given a 10-second stop/go penalty, too, for failing to have his wheels fitted in time.

Bottas sustained a puncture on his way to the grid and then Leclerc span on the formation lap. It was one of those days.

Lewis Hamilton acknowledged he will likely have his work cut out if he is to start the 2021 Formula One season with a second straight win.

Reigning F1 champion Hamilton qualified on pole for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix but will not have the support of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who was only good enough for eighth.

Instead, it is Sergio Perez who will start alongside him on the front row at Imola on Sunday, with the Mexican's Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen in third.

Hamilton accepted Red Bull's pace and positioning means they will have a significant advantage in trying to stop him from winning the opening two races of a calendar year for the first time in 15 seasons.

"It's much different from obviously past experiences. I can't remember the last time I saw the Red Bulls so close, so I think tomorrow, of course … if we're able to get off in order then they obviously have a bit of a better set of cards in terms of strategy," said Hamilton.

"But that doesn't mean we can't pull out something unique and do something different.

"I'm not really sure what happened with Valtteri. It's very hard to overtake here so obviously we probably won't have the support of him early on.

"Maybe he will make it through but otherwise we've just got to focus on our job and try and do absolutely everything and more to keep these lads behind."

Unlike Hamilton and Verstappen, Perez will start the race on soft tyres.

Explaining the strategy decision, Perez said: "We felt as a team that the soft is nowhere near where it was last year, so it's a good race tyre. It's just different to the medium when it’s important… it was very important and crucial for me to get that learning, that consistency and that progression.

"Whether or not it is the right or wrong strategy I think there's not much between them so we are definitely in the game for tomorrow."

Verstappen added: "Of course, we have to wait and see what is going to happen tomorrow but yeah, it's going to be interesting what can be done.

"But not only with that but also what the weather is going to do, if there is a bit of rain or not. I guess we just have to wait and see what's going to happen but hopefully in the race it will be close again."

Lewis Hamilton was shocked to claim his first Formula One pole position in four races as both Red Bull drivers rued missing out by the narrowest of margins.

Mercedes driver Hamilton took pole in qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix by just 0.035 seconds over Sergio Perez, with Max Verstappen just 0.087s back in third.

Charles Leclerc was fourth for Ferrari at Imola, with Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas struggling to eighth place.

That may give Red Bull a strategic advantage for the race, especially with their cars on split strategies as Perez will start on soft tyres while Hamilton and Verstappen will be on mediums.

Still, Hamilton was thrilled to emerge on pole, which came as a surprise to him after Red Bull's pace this weekend and the fact he did not improve on his first flying lap on Q3.

"It has been great," said Hamilton, who impressively won the first race of 2021 in Bahrain despite Red Bull appearing to have a pace advantage.

"I definitely didn't expect us to be ahead of two Red Bulls.

"They have been so quick this weekend, six tenths ahead at times, but the car was already feeling better from the beginning this weekend.

"Respect to the team for their hard work to narrow down the window [to Red Bull].

"I'm so happy because the first lap was really nice, really clean. The second had some improvements but overall wasn't as good as the first.

"I came around the last corner and heard that I got the pole and was super grateful."

The first qualifying session was halted with a red flag after a crash for Yuki Tsunoda, a session Bottas topped as both Williams cars progressed.

Perez – on his soft tyres – emerged at the top of the timesheets in a Q2 session that saw Carlos Sainz, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso among the eliminated drivers.

A dramatic Q3 then saw Hamilton just hold on to his lead set after the first runs. 

Lando Norris thought he had put his McLaren on the front row, only to discover he had exceeded track limits, meaning he settled for seventh behind Pierre Gasly and team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Perez thanked his team after claiming second but felt he should have had pole.

The Mexican said: "Well done to the team. I made a mistake on Friday and made them the team work hard so it is a good recovery.

"The most important thing is we showed progress. I never expected to be here after where we were on Friday but we have been improving.

"It is P2, but I should've been on pole – I made a mistake on the final corner.

"Everything is positive and we have to make sure we keep progressing and Sunday is when it matters.

"Anything can happen – a different [tyre] strategy to Lewis and Max. It will be interesting to see what we can do. The important thing is we get those points and that learning which is the priority."

Verstappen had claimed the last pole of 2020 and the first pole of this season, while Bottas had started at the front in the penultimate race of last year. 

World champion Hamilton ended his wait for pole here, but Verstappen is eager to make life difficult to him.

The Dutchman said: "Not so good in Q3. I went off at turn three, so a bit messy, just not a good lap.

"You can't be good every time, so we'll see what went wrong – but it was definitely not the easiest in Q3. 

"It's still P3, which is a good starting position. It's going to be interesting. We have the two cars on the different tyres and we will try to make it difficult for them."

A 99th career pole position for Hamilton saw him make Imola the 30th circuit where he has topped the qualifying timesheet.
 

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:14.411
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) +0.035s
3. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.087s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.329s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.379s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.415s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.464s
8. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.487s
9. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.799s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) no time set

The pressure is on Red Bull to respond to a disappointing first race as the 2021 Formula One season continues at Imola.

The Austrian outfit, led by Max Verstappen, were expected to lay down a marker for defending champions Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in week one.

But Hamilton claimed a stunning triumph in Bahrain, described by the victor as "one of the hardest races I've had for a while".

The against-the-odds success might suggest a tricky year ahead for Red Bull, who had set the pace in pre-season testing.

They will be aiming to prove that was merely an early blip when Verstappen takes on Hamilton again at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix this week.

A response would set the season up nicely, but Hamilton will be similarly determined to continue his pursuit of a record-breaking eighth title.
 

LAST TIME OUT

Bahrain looked to be set for a season-opening Verstappen victory. The Dutchman was fastest in pre-season, then in practice and again in qualifying.

After starting from pole, his pace was obvious again in a titanic tussle with Hamilton.

But what the Briton lacked in speed - still adjusting to his W12 car, which team-mate Valtteri Bottas claimed was "undriveable" - he more than made up for in experience.

And the strategy of Mercedes had Hamilton in front, although it still took a Verstappen error to giftwrap a Silver Arrows success.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton with four laps remaining but went beyond track limits and crucially had to give first place back to his rival.

Bottas completed the podium in third, also collecting a point for the fastest lap, while Charles Leclerc was the best-placed Ferrari finisher down in sixth.

Aston Martin new man Sebastian Vettel was a frustrating 15th, one place ahead of debutant Mick Schumacher, while the returning Fernando Alonso failed to finish.
 

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR AT IMOLA

Until the Mercedes drivers can properly get to grips with their cars - not relying on errors and chaos for wins - the Hamilton versus Verstappen theme is likely to continue.

The Silver Arrows have at least had time to work on their flaws, three weeks on from Sakhir, while Red Bull have been left to stew on their mishap.

Particular attention will be paid to practice and qualifying and any change in the significant pace gap between the teams last time out.

As long as Red Bull retain the faster car, Verstappen should be in a title race - even if he cannot afford further mistakes.

A two-way fight for the championship is an improvement on recent years in which Hamilton has been comfortably clear of the grid, and there is also intrigue elsewhere.

Ferrari's continued struggles combined with improvement in the McLaren ranks mean there is competition between the two again.

Both outfits will be bidding for third place in the standings this year, with McLaren boasting the edge heading in to race two, while a busy off-season means the pecking order further back is far from concrete.
 

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

Back on pole? - After Verstappen qualified fastest in Bahrain, Mercedes are facing up to the possibility of failing to secure a pole position over the first two races of a season for the first time in the Hybrid Era (since 2014).

Setting the standard - This is one of only four tracks at which Hamilton has never achieved pole, but victory would make this the first time he has ever started a season with back-to-back wins. Only twice before this year had the F1 great triumphed in the season opener, going on to claim the title in both 2008 and 2015.

Man in form - Verstappen is certainly the driver to beat in qualifying after consecutive pole positions at the end of last season and start of this. He only had two poles in his prior 118 races in F1.

Streaking McLaren - Daniel Ricciardo has earned points in his past 12 races, while McLaren team-mate Lando Norris - fourth last time out - could set a new career best with a seventh straight points finish.

In his father's footsteps - Mick Schumacher will this year become used to turning out at events where his father has previously dominated. Michael Schumacher has seven Imola wins, more than any other driver, while Ferrari and Williams are tied on eight team triumphs.
 

CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS 

Drivers 

1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 25
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) - 18 
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 16 
4. Lando Norris (McLaren) - 12 
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) - 10 

Constructors 

1. Mercedes - 41 
2. Red Bull - 28 
3. McLaren - 18 
4. Ferrari - 12
5. Alpha Tauri - 2

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.