Lewis Hamilton fears he will lose further ground to championship rival Max Verstappen after the Red Bull driver raced to his second pole position in a week for the Styrian Grand Prix.
Verstappen, who heads into Sunday’s race a dozen points clear of Hamilton following his triumph at the last round in France, will be the favourite to extend his title lead after lapping the 10 corners in Spielberg with a two-tenth advantage.
Hamilton, now without a pole for four rounds, only finished third, but he will be promoted to the front row following Valtteri Bottas’ three-place penalty for his curious pit-lane spin in practice on Friday.
The under-pressure Finn will start fifth while Lando Norris, one of this season’s star performers, will line up in third on another strong afternoon for the British driver.
Verstappen’s in-form Red Bull team are on course to claim win number four in a row with a downbeat Hamilton admitting he might struggle to hang on to to the Dutch star’s coattails. Indeed, the seven-time world champion believes only rain can save him.
“Max has had a quarter of a second on us all weekend,” said Hamilton. “I don’t think we have the raw pace to overtake him, that’s for sure. We might just be able to keep up.
“I go into the race for a fight and I will be giving it everything. Maybe we will get a surprise. Maybe it will rain.”
There is an 80 per cent chance the eighth round of the championship will be a wet one.
But the weather is notoriously difficult to predict in the Styrian mountains. It was forecast to rain for qualifying but the one-hour session played out under clear blue skies.
On track, Verstappen is proving his Red Bull machine is not a one-trick pony, after dominating on the street tracks of Monaco and Azerbaijan and now in France and Austria, too – the latter two being venues Mercedes have commanded in recent years.
Hamilton has bemoaned Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage, seeming to imply their new engine – introduced last weekend – has a performance upgrade which is forbidden.
But Verstappen knocked back the complaint, pointing instead to his rear wing. “I get this question that we are really quick in the straight, and yes we are, but look at our rear wing, it is not the same,” he said.
“Our engine is all about reliability improvement and no clear advantage on pure power so I am going to fire up my printer next time and bring a print-out of the rear wing difference that we are running compared to other teams.”
Hamilton and Verstappen have traded positions at virtually every race this year, but are yet to take each other out. Norris might be hoping that changes on Sunday.
The 21-year-old Briton is fourth in the championship after coming of age this season. Here, he was half-a-second quicker than his seven-time race-winning McLaren team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who qualified only 13th.
“He is obviously still struggling and doesn’t have the same confidence and feeling that I do,” said Norris. “I focus on me and I don’t think about what is going on on the other side of the garage.
“At times, he seems to get the hang of it and then he loses it again but what he struggles with I do too but just cope with it a bit better.
“For me, I will do my best to get to the front and have an orange car leading the way but I will not ruin my own race to do it.”
George Russell delivered yet another impressive qualifying display, missing out on Q3 by just eight thousandths of a second.
Russell again outperformed his modest Williams machinery to finish 11th and continued to stake his claim for a seat alongside Hamilton at Mercedes next year. The 23-year-old will now start 10th after Yuki Tsunoda was sent down the grid for blocking Bottas.