Verstappen takes first Melbourne pole, but Mercedes offer 'unexpected' response
Max Verstappen ended his wait for pole position at the Australian Grand Prix, but Mercedes came out of Saturday with their optimism renewed in Melbourne.
While reigning Formula One champion and season leader Max Verstappen remains the man to beat, he is without Red Bull team-mate in support at the front of the grid this weekend.
Instead, George Russell joined Verstappen on the front row, with Lewis Hamilton qualifying third-fastest in a qualifying session the pair acknowledged was "unexpected".
It could have been even better for Mercedes, with Hamilton setting an initial provisional pole in a hotly contested Q3.
Just 0.301 seconds separated the top seven at one stage, before a dominant Verstappen performance took him 0.236s clear.
"The last run was very good," he said, acknowledging a "very tough" weekend.
After finally securing pole in Melbourne, his next aim is a first Australia GP win.
Verstappen added: "I've been on the podium once, but I want to be on a different step this time."
Yet Mercedes intend to have something to say about that, even if merely getting this close to Verstappen was far beyond their expectations.
"We weren't expecting that, that's for sure," said Russell. "There's a lot of hard work going on back at the factory here in Melbourne, and what a session for us. The car felt alive.
"The lap at the end was right on the limit, and to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed we didn't get pole position.
"It's one of those things, how your expectations change so quickly in this sport. We probably would have been happy with top four, top five yesterday, but the car felt awesome.
"It goes to show we've definitely got potential still to come."
Hamilton suggested this week it would take "the rest of the year to potentially close that gap" to Red Bull, yet the Silver Arrows are suddenly back in contention.
"I'm so happy with this. This is totally unexpected," Hamilton said. "I'm really, really proud of the team.
"George did a fantastic job today, so for us to be up there on the two front rows is a dream for us.
"We're all working as hard as we can to get right back up the front, so to be this close to Red Bull is honestly incredible. I hope tomorrow we can give them a bit of a run for their money."
Absent from the Q3 battle was Perez, who is on a career-best run of three straight podiums and had talked up his title aspirations this week.
But he endured problems right from the outset on Saturday, delayed in his start to FP3 and then running into trouble at Turn 3.
Perez locked up again at the same corner early in Q1 and ended in the gravel, his session over as he bemoaned "the same issue again" over the team radio.
McLaren's home favourite Oscar Piastri, making his Australian GP debut, fared little better, out in Q1.
A strong start to the season for Fernando Alonso continued as the veteran qualified fourth, ahead of Ferrari's Carlos Sainz.
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
2. George Russell (Mercedes)
3. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
4. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
6. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
7. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari)
8. Alexander Albon (Williams)
9. Pierre Gasly (Alpine)
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Haas)