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Verstappen wary of ‘very quick’ Ferrari as Sainz eyes victory

Max Verstappen has warned there is a major “question mark” over whether he can convert pole position at the Australian Grand Prix into victory on Sunday due to the threat posed by Ferrari.

The Dutchman has begun his quest for a fourth successive drivers’ title with dominant wins in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia but needed something of an upset to top qualifying in Melbourne on Saturday.

Ferrari, who have comfortably been Red Bull’s closest challengers in the opening two races, appeared to have the edge over Verstappen as Charles Leclerc topped the final two practice sessions at Albert Park before Carlos Sainz set the pace in the first two parts of qualifying.

However, when it came down to the pole position shootout, Verstappen was able to maximise the RB20’s performance, beating to pole by almost three tenths of a second, while Leclerc finished fifth after making an error on his final flying lap.

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Qualifying highlights of the Australian Grand Prix from Albert Park

“For me it was very tricky the whole weekend to just get the car in a good window,” Verstappen told Sky Sports F1.

“We kept on making changes, some worked a bit, some didn’t. Even into qualifying, in Q1 and Q2, I couldn’t get it how I like it. We just kept on tickling little things and then in Q3 it finally clicked a bit more.”

Despite having turned the situation around in qualifying, Verstappen remains uncertain as to whether his advantage will carry over into the race, with Ferrari having also shown impressive long-run pace during practice.

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Verstappen believes Sunday’s race will be the biggest challenge of the season so far with Ferrari showing great pace all weekend

“That’s still not a given that tomorrow is going to be good because it seems like Ferrari are very strong over one lap but also in the long run it seems that they can keep their tyres alive a bit better than others,” said Verstappen, who will be attempting to equal his own record of 10 successive wins.

“They seem very quick also in the long run. So a bit of a question mark for tomorrow, but I guess that makes it very exciting. So we’ll find out tomorrow.”

Sainz: I think we might have a chance

Sainz has already exceeded his own expectations to seal a front row spot, with the Spaniard having returned to the cockpit on Friday just two weeks after having surgery for appendicitis that ruled him out of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The 29-year-old began practice unsure of whether his recovering body would be able to cope with the rigours of driving an F1 car, but gradually improved throughout the weekend before outperforming team-mate Leclerc when it mattered most.

While Sainz is wary that his remaining physical limitations could hamper his chances of challenging Verstappen on Sunday, he shares the world champion’s suspicion that the two leading teams could be closely matched in terms of race pace.

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Carlos Sainz says he is really happy with qualifying on the front row for the Australian Grand Prix despite still not feeling 100 per cent after his appendix surgery last weekend

“I think nowadays you need to be 100 per cent to beat Max and today I wasn’t,” said Sainz, who was the last driver other than Verstappen to win an F1 race, at last season’s Singapore Grand Prix.

“And probably due to that, I missed out on pole. I think today if I would have done a 100 per cent good job, pole position could have been possible.

“Tomorrow will be the same. I need to be 100 per cent to beat Max. I will give it my absolute everything to do it because it’s been a while since Singapore, and he’s been on that top step since.

“But yeah, if there’s one weekend where we have a good pace, it’s this one. Tricky track to overtake, tricky on tyres. So who knows? I think we might have a chance.”

Uncertainty around how Sunday’s race will play out is partly down to tyre supplier Pirelli’s decision to bring the softest compounds in their allocation to the event.

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Ride onboard with Red Bull’s Verstappen as the three-time world champion secures his third pole position in a row at the Australian Grand Prix

Tyre degradation hasn’t been a factor in recent races at Albert Park, but looks set to be a significant consideration on Sunday.

“The biggest thing we saw is that it’s very easy to grain the medium tyre,” Sainz added. “So being in traffic behind the Red Bull might not be the best for that tyre.

“And then let’s see how the hard behaves, if the hard is a good tyre or not.

“The race pace today and yesterday has been good enough to make me believe that if I’m feeling good tomorrow, I can give it a run for the win.”

Leclerc to play key role after Perez penalty?

Ferrari were handed a further boost after qualifying on Saturday when Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez was demoted from third to sixth for impeding the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg in Q1.

Red Bull appeared to have a two-on-one advantage in the fight for victory, but Leclerc now has the potential to play a crucial role after being promoted to fourth, despite having the McLaren of Lando Norris between himself and the top two.

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Charles Leclerc said he ‘didn’t find the right feeling today’ after qualifying fifth in his Ferrari at the Australian GP

“I just have to do a good start but then the race is long and there are four DRS zones here, so I think overtaking is possible. We need to focus on ourselves. I still believe that Red Bull have more margin than what we initially thought, so tomorrow they will be stronger.

“But if I get past Lando fairly quickly, then we can focus on getting he guys in front with Carlos and hopefully put them under a bit more pressure.”

Norris had been behind his team-mate Oscar Piastri throughout the weekend, but found some timely improvement to deliver his best qualifying performance of the season.

While McLaren showed solid race pace themselves throughout practice, Norris isn’t convinced he will have the speed to challenge for a podium finish.

Australian GP grid: Revised top 10

1. Max Verstappen, Red Bull

2. Carlos Sainz, Ferrari

3. Lando Norris, McLaren

4. Charles Leclerc, Ferrari

5. Oscar Piastri, McLaren

6. Sergio Perez, Red Bull

7. George Russell, Mercedes

8. Yuki Tsunoda, RB

9. Lance Stroll, Aston Martin

10. Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin

“Battling against Red Bulls and Ferrari is probably going to be a very tough challenge,” he told Sky Sports F1.

“So probably don’t plan too much on concentrating on them, but we’re starting ahead of one and if we can finish ahead of however many, that will be a good thing.

“Probably not our main focus on who we’re battling but I will battle for as long as I need and as long as I think I’m capable of doing so.”

Sky Sports F1’s live Australian GP schedule

The third round of the 2024 F1 season takes place on Sunday, with lights out at 4am on Sky Sports F1
Image: The third round of the 2024 F1 season takes place on Sunday, with lights out at 4am on Sky Sports F1

Sunday March 24

  • 0.30am: F2 Feature Race
  • 3am: Australian GP build-up: Grand Prix Sunday
  • 4am: THE AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
  • 6am: Australian GP reaction: Chequered Flag
  • 7am: Ted’s Notebook
  • 7.30am: Australian GP highlights
  • 8.30am: Australian GP build-up: Grand Prix Sunday replay
  • 9.30am: Australian GP race replay
  • 10am: Australian GP highlights (Sky Showcase)
  • 11.30am: Australian GP reaction: Chequered Flag replay

Formula 1’s biggest ever season continues with the Australian Grand Prix live on Sky Sports F1 at 4am on Sunday, live on Sky Sports F1. Stream every F1 race and more with a NOW Sports Month Membership – No contract, cancel anytime

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