Leclerc fastest again in practice as Ferrari eyes pole at GP

Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco gestures during a news conference at the Monaco racetrack, in Monaco, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The Formula one race will be held on Sunday. (Luca Bruno/AP)

SPIELBERG, Austria — Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc won the pole position for the Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton drew a three-place grid penalty and will start in fifth position.

It is Leclerc’s second career pole following the one at the Bahrain GP in March. He missed out on what seemed a certain victory in that race because of engine problems with 10 laps left.

The Monaco driver, who led two of the three practice sessions, set a track record of 1 minute, 3:003 seconds. He was 0.259 faster than Hamilton, as Mercedes failed to match Ferrari’s pace on the straights.

Hamilton, however, lost three places on the grid for "unnecessarily impeding" Kimi Raikkonen in the opening qualifying round. Coming out of the pit lane, Hamilton crossed the race line while trying to make way for the Alfa Romeo driver, prompting a hand gesture from the Finnish driver.

"I tried to go straight on and get out of the way because I didn’t want to meet in a corner," said Hamilton, adding that "I might have put him off. That wasn’t ideal."

Last year’s winner, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, was 0.436 behind in third, but will join Leclerc on the front row following Hamilton’s grid penalty.

Hamilton teammate Valtteri Bottas, who started this race from pole the last two seasons, was the only other driver to clock a lap within a second of Leclerc’s time.

"It is a big pleasure to drive this car under high pressure," Leclerc said. "Tomorrow the start will be very important. There is a long straight after it. Normally we are quite fast on the straights so hopefully we can keep that first place in the first three corners. It looks promising."

It is Ferrari’s first pole in an Austrian GP since Michael Schumacher got it in 2003, but it was a bittersweet success. Sebastian Vettel had to skip the final qualifying round following an issue with the air-pressure line to his engine, leaving the German four-time champion only in 10th place.

"It’s a bit [of] a shame for the team as both cars should be closer to one and two," Leclerc said.

Hamilton will be after his seventh win of the season Sunday. Mercedes has won four of the five Austrian GPs since the event’s return to the F1 calendar in 2014, and the team has started the race from pole the last four seasons.

"Charles has been quick all weekend. We definitely underestimated how fast they would be," Hamilton said. "It was very tight in the end and it is quite cool to see three teams on the top-three positions."

Striving for his third straight drivers’ championship and sixth overall, Hamilton leads Bottas by 36 points and third-place Vettel trails by 76.

Daniil Kvyat narrowly avoided crashing into Russell, the last of four slower cars that appeared in front of him coming out of a turn.

"I almost killed someone. What was that?" the Torro Rosso driver said over the team radio.

That ended Kvyat’s last chance of a fast lap, and the Russian failed to make the next qualifying round while race stewards handed Williams driver George Russell a three-place grid penalty.

Four more drivers picked up grid penalties, with Kevin Magnussen the latest driver to suffer a setback after a change of gearbox in his Haas.

Earlier, Nico Hulkenberg lost five places after Renault decided before the final practice to use the Spec B engine for the rest of the weekend, his fifth internal combustion engine this season.

Also, McLaren’s Carlos Sainz and Toro Rosso’s Alexander Albon were relegated to the back of the starting pack for using new power unit elements. Sainz was coming off a season-best sixth place in the French GP last week and had scored points in four of the last five races.

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