If the supposed rivalry of the ages between Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is to have lift-off then we must hope the young pretender performs rather better than he did in qualifying for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
For a record 99th time, it was Hamilton who took pole. Verstappen was only third, a scratchy final lap depriving him of better. Sergio Perez, in the other Red Bull, was second fastest, 0.035sec behind the Briton.
It was a stark reminder that there is a difference between being quick – which Verstappen most certainly is – and holding one’s nerve at crucial moments. There is a long way to go and no judgment on Verstappen can be final at this point.
Sir Lewis Hamilton has clinched pole ahead of Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix in Imola
The 36-year-old clocked in quicker than his Red Bull rivals to start at the front of the grid
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez will start on the front row alongside Hamilton after a strong Q3
The Red Bull and Mercedes drivers share a joke after an impressive qualifying performance
It is just that he flunked it at the opening round in Bahrain three weeks ago, too. He brilliantly put himself right on Hamilton’s rear only to mess up the crunch overtake move, running off track and then, discombobulated, failed to make a telling impact as the race came to an end.
Hamilton, who was victorious on that occasion, is a warrior – calm, confident, experienced. And those characteristics may well separate him from the rest in the final analysis.
Time will tell. But during qualifying at Imola – brought forward to avoid a clash with the slow marches and solemnity of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral – Verstappen ran wide at Turn Three and that was the significant detail of differential on the day.
‘It was all coming along nicely but in Q3 with the final run, I didn’t have a good lap,’ said Verstappen.
‘I went off in Turn Three with two wheels. I know Honda make good lawnmowers but I don’t think this car was suited for that. It was a scrappy lap, and I have not had that in a long time, so I just need to understand why that happened.
‘It has been going really well for a very long time but we are not robots and I cannot programme myself like that. Sometimes you make a mistake. But we have two cars close to Lewis on different tyres so hopefully that will provide some excitement for tomorrow. It is a very long season so it is not only about tomorrow.’
Max Verstappen had a poor day’s qualifying and will begin Sunday’s race from third position
Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, had a day to forget after qualifying in a lowly eighth position
AlphaTauri were dealt a blow after rookie Yuki Tsunoda went into the wall on Turn 15
Hamilton and Mercedes stood for a minute’s silence for Prince Philip following his death
1. Sir Lewis Hamilton
2. Sergio Perez
3. Max Verstappen
4. Charles Leclerc
5. Pierre Gasly
6. Daniel Ricciardo
7. Lando Norris
8. Valtteri Bottas
9. Estaban Ocon
10. Lance Stroll
Hamilton holds the huge advantage on a narrow track that has little opportunity for overtaking, though he has two Red Bulls right on his back, while his own team-mate Valtteri Bottas starts only eighth. Charles Leclerc of Ferrari qualified fourth.
‘I cannot remember the last time I saw the two Red Bull so close,’ said Hamilton. ‘They obviously have a better car in terms of strategy but that doesn’t mean we cannot pull out something unique.
‘We have to focus on our job and do everything and more to keep these guys behind.
‘I am just amazed at how close it is and how exciting that is. It really adds to the fire and the adrenalin-rush. I didn’t know whether these Red Bull guys had improved on that last lap for quite some time so I was definitely nervous and that is the excitement of closer racing.
‘I knew going into qualifying it was going to take something special and the most perfect lap I could do and a little bit more in order to beat the Red Bulls because they have been so fast all weekend. I honestly didn’t know if I could do it. But I started a tenth up out of Turns One and Two and I knew I was on to a good lap. I am honestly so happy with it.
‘In the last race there was a good gap to the Red Bulls. We thought we could close it up, but that was a really clean qualifying session. I am really grateful that I am still taking steps in the right direction but nobody within the team expected us to be on pole, but that is what I was gunning for. It was the tidiest lap I could put together.’
The first session was red-flagged after only six minutes when AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda crashed on the exit of Variante Alta and into the tyre wall. He was unharmed.