By Philip Duncan, PA F1 Correspondent, Melbourne
George Russell said Mercedes must target victory at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix following their surprise qualifying performance in Melbourne.
Championship leader Max Verstappen raced to pole position with a track record at Albert Park, but the revival of the Silver Arrows raised hope that the Dutchman might not have it all his own way this season.
Russell will line up alongside Verstappen on the front row, lapping 0.236 seconds slower than the Red Bull man, with Lewis Hamilton third in the other Mercedes.
Tasty starting grid 😋#AusGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/LOSz7ucTuj
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 1, 2023
Fernando Alonso starts fourth for Aston Martin, while Sergio Perez, a winner in Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago, qualified last after he beached his Red Bull.
Mercedes have endured a poor start to the year. On the eve of the first race in Bahrain, team principal Toto Wolff sent alarm bells ringing when he said he was ready to consign this season’s car to the rubbish bin.
But less than a month later, Russell and Hamilton find themselves as the chief protagonists to stop Verstappen from claiming his second victory in three rounds.
“We have got to go for the win,” said Russell. “Max will be extremely fast and there is no hiding that. It is difficult to overtake here and the start will be vital.
“The Red Bull has extraordinary top speed so it is going to be difficult to fight with Max, but let’s see how we go. If the opportunity is there we will go for it.”
Russell’s optimism for Sunday’s race is in stark contrast to his gloomy prediction that Red Bull could win all 23 rounds this season.
“After a frustrating time, like we had in Bahrain, you say things in the heat of the moment,” added the British driver.
“Red Bull are still ahead of everybody else. Lewis and I got the most out of it today, and from what Max was saying, he has still got a little bit in the locker.
“Three tenths is still a huge amount in the world of F1. But we are not going to give up, we are going to keep pushing.”
Hamilton was just nine thousandths adrift of Verstappen heading into the final runs. But preparations for his last lap were disrupted when he got caught behind Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg.
Although the seven-time world champion improved on his time, he dropped behind Russell to third.
But Hamilton said: “To have a Mercedes on the front row is a dream for us and to be this close to Red Bull is incredible. I hope tomorrow we can give them a run for the money.
“The result gives everyone in the team a boost, and a glimpse of hope. This will spur everyone on and will inspire everyone to continue to push.
“We know that if we can bring a little bit of performance we can close the gap to the front.
“If we can continue to apply the pressure, bag these points, and then when the car is right start fighting for wins, that would be incredible.”
Rewind to Q1, and a dramatic early exit for Sergio Perez 😮#AusGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/HlRB2QxQEg
— Formula 1 (@F1) April 1, 2023
Perez lines up at the back of the field after his qualifying appearance ended in the opening minutes.
The Mexican was unable to slow his Red Bull down in time for the third bend, completely missing the apex and skidding off into the gravel.
He attempted to manoeuvre his machine out of the sand trap but he was stuck. The red flags were deployed and Perez’s day ended with a whimper.
The 33-year-old, one point adrift of Verstappen in the standings, headed back to the garage on the back of a moped before reappearing at the back of the Red Bull garage with a face like thunder.