Lewis Hamilton beats Sergio Perez to Imola pole

Lewis Hamilton took pole position ahead of Sergio Perez in a thrilling Emilia Romagna Grand Prix qualifying session.

Briton Hamilton was just 0.035 seconds clear in the Mercedes as Mexican Perez, in only his second race for Red Bull, beat team-mate Max Verstappen.

Charles Leclerc put the Ferrari fourth, while Valtteri Bottas was only eighth in the second Mercedes.

McLaren’s Lando Norris had his fastest lap time deleted for exceeding track limits and fell from second to seventh.

It was a bitter blow for the Englishman, who had looked fast all session and appeared to have a chance of qualifying among the Mercedes and Red Bulls.

He was no more than a foot outside the track at the fast Piratella left-hander, where countless drivers have had lap times deleted through the weekend.

And while Hamilton being on pole might appear commonplace, it was a clear surprise to the Mercedes team judging by the exchange he had with race engineer Peter Bonnington on team radio afterwards, as both expressed incredulity at beating the Red Bulls.

“I definitely didn’t expect us to be ahead of two Red Bulls,” Hamilton said. “They have been so quick this weekend. They had 0.6secs on us at some times. But the car was already feeling a lot better from this weekend.

“Mad respect for the hard work from the team to narrow down the window.”

A big turnaround from Bahrain

Hamilton’s pole marked a significant shift in fortunes at the front since the first race of the season, when the Red Bull was clearly the quickest car and Verstappen was on pole by 0.4secs.

Mercedes have looked much more at home around the sweeps of Imola and technical director James Allison had already said on Friday that the car was “in a much happier place”.

But the relative pace of the two Mercedes drivers will raise questions as to whether this pole was predominantly down to an exceptional performance from Hamilton, who took his 99th career pole.

Team-mate Bottas was 0.487secs slower than the seven-time champion and faces a long and difficult race on Sunday from eighth place.

Perez produced an outstanding performance to sneak ahead of Verstappen by just 0.052secs so early in his career with his new team, and the top three have set up an intriguing race, with the two Red Bull drivers on opposing tyre strategies.

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