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Officially, Max Verstappen was the fastest man in Monaco, claiming his first pole position here as if waving a magic wand in the dying seconds of the year’s most compelling qualifying session.
But for once, the double world champion’s magnificence only served to underline the brilliance of another. That star under cobalt blue skies was 41-year-old Fernando Alonso, who turned time and technology on their heads through a combination of sheer willpower and enduring talent.
‘I’m pushing like an animal,’ declared the Spaniard, having just set the fastest time after the first round of flying laps in Q3. He then re-established himself on top with his second blast. Only Verstappen was possibly left to spoil his perfect day.
From two-tenths down heading into the final sector, Verstappen zipped through the closing bends in defiance of danger to finish 0.084 of a second ahead. It was a fine display, but achieved in an unmatched Red Bull. Alonso’s deeds were delivered in an Aston Martin that carried his team-mate Lance Stroll to just 14th quickest.
‘I raised the risk to an uncomfortable level,’ said Alonso, after missing out on what would have been his first pole for 3,961 days. He was delighted just to have inveigled himself on the front row and hugged his mechanics in celebration, knowing that one slip from Max offers him the chance to win Monaco for a fourth time.
Max Verstappen (right) pipped Fernando Alonso (left) to pole position at the Monaco GP
The defending world champion had put in a thrilling third and final sector on his last lap
But he has not won anywhere for a decade, as he has trudged through treacle in the sticky areas of the grid. Moving to Aston this year, with their sudden competitiveness, has rekindled the fire. ‘It’s a very short run into Turn 1,’ said Alonso. ‘We normally have a good start. Max is a bit inconsistent so maybe he has one of those bad ones tomorrow.
‘I have never lost my confidence over the years. Perhaps I am over-confident but that is part of my DNA. But my form is proof to a younger generation that has only seen me fighting to get into Q3 or with smoke at the back to realise that I am fast.’
It was also a chance for Monaco’s doubters to witness the principality at its best. Packed stands, bobbing yachts and narrow walls that send adrenaline jumping faster than inflation. We should remember that whatever drama, or lack of it, materialises across 78 laps today.
If Alonso’s mood was as bright as the sun, the atmosphere at Mercedes was measured after Lewis Hamilton qualified sixth — though he moved up a place after Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was demoted three slots from third for blocking McLaren’s Lando Norris — and George Russell eighth, respectively four-tenths and six-tenths back.
This after the introduction of their major upgrade package — a new floor, front suspension, cooling system and sidepod. While a definitive judgment on its effectiveness must await further analysis, it does not appear to be the biggest game-changer since that water was turned into wine.
Russell, Hamilton and boss Toto Wolff all publicly accentuated the positives in post-qualifying interviews, but the jury is out.
Hamilton was scrambling throughout the afternoon and just squeezed his way out of Q1 and Q2, his confidence perhaps a tad brittle after crashing during the third practice session earlier in the day.
‘Man, this car is hard to drive, mate,’ he complained over the radio. Wolff later ascribed Hamilton’s angst to a set-up gamble, rather than the upgrade itself.
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez condemned himself to start at the back when he crashed at the first corner, Sainte Devote, in the opening minutes of qualifying. The Mexican carried too much speed into the bend and thudded the rear of his Red Bull into the hoardings.
Alonso and Verstappen were joined by Charles Leclerc in the top three during the session
Behind the two double world champions, in third, came Ferrari’s local boy Charles Leclerc. Alpine’s Esteban Ocon was a surprise fourth quickest, with Carlos Sainz fifth and Lewis Hamilton sixth, four-tenths back despite a major ‘upgrade’ to his Mercedes.
Next came Alpine’s Pierre Gasly, ahead of George Russell in a disappointing eight in the other Silver Arrow, six-tenths adrift.
Hamilton was scrambling throughout and only just squeezed his way out of both Q1 and Q2. With his confidence perhaps a little brittle after crashing in the third practice session earlier in the afternoon, he missed the chicane in Q1 before putting in an adequate lap at the final attempt.
In Q2, he was scrambling throughout. He grazed his car at the swimming pool chicane and only made it through to Q3 as the seconds ticked down on the session. ‘Man, this car is hard to drive, mate,’ he complained to the pit wall.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement of his new front suspension, floor, cooling system and sidepod redesign that was hailed as a remedy to Mercedes’ season-and-a-half of woe.
Lewis Hamilton (above) struggled throughout the session and qualified in sixth for the race
Sergio Perez, meanwhile, crashed in Q1 and will start the showpiece from the back of the grid
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez condemned himself to start at the back of the field when he crashed at the opening corner, Sainte Devote in the opening minutes of qualifying.
The Mexican, who is Verstappen’s closest challenger in the standings, 14 points back, carried too much speed into the bend and thudded the left-rear of his car into the hoardings. He trudged back to the pits, knowing he faces a tough task to make serious headway on a tight track famed for its paucity of overtaking opportunities.
Not that it is impossible, as Michael Schumacher showed when he started at the back in 2006 and carved his way up to fifth place after the disgrace of parking his Ferrari on the racing line in qualifying on the day of his greatest infamy.
McLaren’s Lando Norris was 10th best.