RACE DEBRIEF

    Lewis Hamilton’s 99th career pole position had looked in doubt heading into qualifying for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, as Max Verstappen went fastest in Free Practice 3 by over half a second from the rest of the field. But a stunning effort in Q3 saw Hamilton win out over the Red Bull pair of Sergio Perez and Verstappen, as team mate Valtteri Bottas could only claim P8.

    With Red Bull and Mercedes having gone toe-to-toe for quickest laps throughout qualifying – Bottas heading Q1, while the soft-shod Perez hit back in Q2 – Hamilton laid down a marker in Q3 with a first effort of 1m 14.411s to grab provisional pole.

    READ MORE: Hamilton takes 99th pole in Imola as Perez seals first front row start ahead of Verstappen

    And although he wouldn’t ultimately improve on his second run, Hamilton had done enough to claim the 99th pole position of his career – extending his own record, while also adding to another of his records, as he secured pole at a 30th different circuit in his career.

    “I definitely didn’t expect us to be ahead of the two Red Bulls!” said Hamilton at the end of qualifying. “They’ve been so quick this weekend. There were times when they were six-tenths ahead and we didn’t really know where we’d be. But the car was already feeling a lot better from the beginning this weekend.

    2021 Emilia Romagna GP Qualifying: Hamilton takes pole position ahead of Red Bulls

    “I knew going into qualifying and especially that last lap, it was going to take something special,” he added. “It really had to be the most perfect lap and a little bit more to beat the Red Bulls because they really have been so fast all weekend. And I didn’t honestly know whether we could do it.

    “The first lap in Q3, I started a tenth up in [Turns] 2 and 3 and I knew I was onto a good lap, but the second sector I lost a little in Turn 12. So the second time around, unfortunately I came out of Turn 1… a tenth down, and by the time I got to Turn 9 I was a tenth and a half down, but managed to regain that through the middle and the last sector. So having those two together, would have been the perfect, perfect lap.”

    READ MORE: Tsunoda apologises for ‘huge mistake’ after crashing out in opening minutes of qualifying in Imola

    Perfect lap or not, that was pole number 99 sorted for Hamilton. But win number 97 might be a harder prospect in Sunday’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, with Perez on the front row alongside Hamilton on the faster-starting soft tyres – while right behind lurks Verstappen, with Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas failing to nail his final lap as he ended up a lowly P8. And Hamilton admitted it would take something “unique” to beat the resurgent Red Bulls at Imola.

    “I think it’s great finally we’ve got the two Red Bulls there,” said Hamilton. “It’s going to definitely make the strategy harder and it’s going to be a real challenge tomorrow because they’ve got great pace, I think their race pace was a little bit stronger than us on the long runs yesterday.

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    Perez will start alongside Hamilton on the faster soft tyres

    “I can’t remember the last time I saw the two Red Bulls so close,” he added, “and 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 – but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull out something unique and do something different.

    AS IT HAPPENED: Follow all the action from qualifying for the Emilia Romagna GP in Imola

    “I’m not really what sure what happened with Valtteri but it’s very hard to overtake here, so I obviously probably won’t have the support of him early on – but nevertheless maybe he’ll make it through. But otherwise we’ve just got to focus on our job and try and give it absolutely everything and more to keep these guys behind.”

    Hamilton at least has winning experience at Imola, having triumphed in last year’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, in a result that helped Mercedes secure their seventh consecutive constructors’ crown.