If you had said following his maiden Formula 1 victory that Max Verstappen would have to wait more than three years for his first pole position, you would probably have been laughed out of the room.

There have been plenty of near misses since then. Monaco and Mexico last year stand out as the two biggest opportunities that passed the Red Bull driver by.

But he finally managed to claim his first F1 pole in Hungary on Saturday, getting the monkey off his back once and for all.

Friday’s drizzle failed to present too clear a picture from practice, but Verstappen looked to be in the hunt after a close-fought FP3 where he was narrowly edged out by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, stoking hopes of a breakthrough F1 pole.

The Dutchman made an early statement in Q1, running half a second clear of the field with his very first lap, and eased through to Q3 on Mediums to set up a final battle against the Mercedes drivers.

The strength of the Red Bull RB14 car through slow-speed corners allowed him to make huge gains through the second and third sectors, enough to put Verstappen almost two-tenths clear following the opening runs in Q3. Pole position was on.

Verstappen found even more time with his final lap to move out of reach – but only just. Valtteri Bottas produced a stonking last-gasp effort to finish just 0.018 seconds shy of Verstappen (equal to 1.06 metres of track, according to Mercedes), almost snatching pole away. In the end though, nothing could stop Verstappen.

“I knew it was a matter of time,” Verstappen said of his wait. “You need a bit of luck sometimes as well. Of course, I made mistakes myself to miss a pole position shot. And today we got it, so very happy with that.”

His first pole was not the history-maker that most would have anticipated it to have been. Mexico last year represented Verstappen’s final opportunity to break Sebastian Vettel’s record as F1’s youngest pole-sitter. His success today only placed him fourth at a comparatively-ancient 21 years and 307 days, trailing Vettel, Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso.

But he didn’t care at all for missing out on the record: “No. I can make it a long story, but it’s not one. It’s nice [to have records] but it doesn’t make me sleep better or anything.”

The result represented another big goal ticked off for Red Bull-Honda as the Japanese manufacturer topped qualifying for the first time since Australia 2006. Two wins in the last three races have dispelled any concerns about how competitive the package may be going forward, with Verstappen hailing the confidence he has found in the Red Bull car recently.

“We are pushing hard and we are improving and we are getting close to Mercedes and Ferrari, especially Ferrari - they seem very quick on the straights,” Verstappen said.

“With the chassis, I think since Austria where we introduced a few crucial updates I think the car has been a lot better. From there onwards we kept bringing new parts. Maybe not as major as that one but it always gave me more of a balanced feeling in the car.

“That’s exactly what we were looking for in the car, and I guess it shows today on a track where you need a lot of downforce that the car was working really well.”

Verstappen’s performance on Saturday only strengthened his claim to being the best driver in F1 right now – but might he be exposed in the race?

Overtaking is notoriously very difficult at the Hungaroring, meaning the man leading out of Turn 1 is in a strong spot even if he doesn’t necessarily have the fastest car (see Hamilton’s wins in 2013 and 2018 in particular). Mercedes’ dry pace did catch Verstappen’s attention on Friday, meaning Hamilton and Bottas will be hopeful of staying with the Red Bull through the opening stint.

The big worry for Verstappen is that he will be all alone in his fight against them. An underwhelming display from Red Bull teammate Pierre Gasly saw him qualify eight-tenths of a second off the pole time (in the very same car), leaving him down in P6, also trailing both Ferraris. Barring a rocket start from Gasly, Verstappen will have no rear-gunner to help him in the fight against the silver cars.

Mercedes has used its two-on-one advantage to good effect in the past, perhaps best seen at last year’s Italian Grand Prix as it defeated the far-superior Ferrari, driven that day by Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes was able to use Bottas to back Raikkonen up in dirty air and ruin his tyres after keeping the Finn out for a long first stint. With far fresher rubber, Hamilton then swept past Raikkonen once they had been released, pushing on to take an unlikely win.

Tomorrow’s race looks set to be a straightforward one-stopper (Mediums to Hards) barring any weather drama, giving Mercedes the chance to be tactical should it trail Verstappen on the opening lap.

“We’re in a good position in terms of working as a team tomorrow. We’re in a fortunate position, potentially, if we can hold on to Max to be able to work together to pull him closer to us and give him a bit of a run for his money,” Hamilton said.

“It’s a little bit harder when you’re on your own at the front in the team, because you can come under attack from undercuts and all this sort of thing.

“We’ll see how that plays out, but we’ve got a long run down to Turn 1, so hopefully we will have a nice long battle down there and then after that, it’s down to team tactics.”

Verstappen’s recent form has been nothing short of astonishing. But if he can follow his maiden pole up with a convincing defeat of both Mercedes drivers in Hungary on Sunday without any outside help, it would surely go down as his best achievement yet.

And who knows? It could even give some extra life to the fading title fight.



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