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September 11, 2021
By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) -Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took pole position for the Italian Grand Prix and surged five points clear of Lewis Hamilton in the Formula One championship after a sprint qualifying race on Saturday.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas won the 18 lap race around the fastest track on the calendar but engine penalties sent the Finn to the back of the grid for Sunday’s main event at Monza.
While Verstappen is perfectly placed for an eighth win in 14 races, seven-times world champion Hamilton will start fourth and with the championship gap in danger of dropping into double figures.
“The race was better than expected, we scored some nice little points. It is going to be an interesting race tomorrow,” said Verstappen, second at the chequered flag.
“I don’t expect it to be a very straightforward and easy race because of Valtteri coming from the back and Lewis starting in P4 with a lot of pace. We’ll see what we can do against them.”
McLaren’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo will join the Dutch 23-year-old on the front row for the first time since Mexico 2018 when the pair were team mates at Red Bull.
Bottas took three championship points, Verstappen two and Ricciardo one in an experimental race format being trialled for only the second time after a debut at Silverstone in July.
“It was a good sprint. Everything went smoothly, I had a really good start and the car was really consistent,” said Bottas.
“It’s been a perfect weekend and then I have the grid penalty. That happens. Anything is possible (on Sunday). You never know. I’ll keep pushing.”
Champions Mercedes had planned to impose team orders for their drivers to swap places during the race and maximise Hamilton’s points haul but that opportunity never materialised.
Hamilton dropped four places at the start and only reclaimed one when AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, last year’s surprise winner at the Italian team’s home race, hit the back of Ricciardo’s McLaren at the first chicane and crashed out.
That brought out the safety car until the end of lap three and Hamilton was unable to get close enough to Norris after that to attempt an overtake.
“It wasn’t great,” the Briton said of his afternoon.
“I’ve got to try and figure out how I can get by and try to limit the damage.
“You saw the pace of the Red Bull, they are so fast. It should be an easy win (for Verstappen) and I have to try and get past the two guys (Ricciardo and Norris) ahead.”
The Ferrari duo of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, who crashed heavily in final practice, will share the third row at their home track.
Italian Antonio Giovinazzi lines up seventh for Alfa Romeo, with Red Bull’s Mexican Sergio Perez alongside and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll ninth. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso secured the 10th slot.
Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda and Alfa Romeo’s Robert Kubica also tangled at the start.
Ricciardo, who has had a tough time since his move to McLaren from Renault at the end of last year, was delighted to be back at the front of the grid with McLaren using the soft tyres when most others opted for mediums.
“It’s been a while since a front row,” he said. “I guess thanks to Valtteri for that.
“It’s cool. First time up here in the sprint as well. We’ve got the big one tomorrow but I think I’ve done the job today, ticked the box to get me in a better starting spot… I think it was a smooth Saturday.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Gareth Jones and Ed Osmond and Christian Radnedge)
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