Red Bull’s world championship leader Max Verstappen will start on pole for the Austrian Grand Prix after edging out Lando Norris for McLaren in qualifying on Saturday as Lewis Hamilton resigned himself to another trying weekend.

Verstappen’s third pole in a row puts him in a strong position to stretch his 18 point lead over Hamilton in Sunday’s ninth race of the Formula One season.

The Dutch driver’s teammate Sergio Perez will start on the second row alongside Hamilton’s Mercedes at the Red Bull-owned Spielberg circuit.

“Hopefully we can finish it off tomorrow,” said the 23-year-old, who was cheered on by a sea of Dutch fans at the first Grand Prix weekend to welcome back a capacity crowd since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

“To see all the fans cheering is an amazing sight,” he said.

“Even before Q1 started they were just jumping and bouncing around and they were having a good time, especially of course already with the last one and a half years everyone has gone through and to open it up again.”

Verstappen topped the time sheets in Q1 and Q2, and then nailed the prime seat in the grid with a flying lap of 1min 03.720sec in Q3.

He won from pole in France and last weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix at his team’s home circuit, and with Monza and Monaco already ticked off win number five of the campaign looks his to lose.

That is certainly how Hamilton rates his prospects of stopping the Red Bull charge to the 2021 world title.

“I would say a win is out of the question,” said Hamilton, whose last success was back in Barcelona in early May.

The seven-time world champion reckoned Red Bull “have improved their car again this weekend”.

“So that’s an easy cruise win for Max,” he forecast. “Maybe we can just try and get ahead of at least Sergio Perez and limit the damage this weekend.”

‘Max is just faster’

Hamilton, who signed a new two-year contract extension up to 2023 with Mercedes earlier Saturday, has been urging the Silver Arrows to introduce upgrades to keep pace with Red Bull.

“It will be even more of a challenge than last week. We continue to lack pace, we tried everything to get more out of the car.

“We have got to find performance in the next races,” he said. “When I look at it, I’m losing out on the lap. Max is just faster.”

Norris was only denied his maiden pole by 0.048sec, the talented 21-year-old British driver’s performance the latest sign of his team’s resurgence.

“I feel epic, this is cool! That was probably one of the best laps I have done, it puts us in a great position for tomorrow,” said the driver in fourth position in the standings.

His more experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo is 52 points behind and was almost a second behind after failing to make it out of Q2.

On the third row of Sunday’s grid are Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and Pierre Gasly with his Alpha Tauri teammate Yuki Tsunoda just behind in the fourth row where he should have been alongside the Aston Martin of Sebastian Vettel.

Vettel, however, was hauled before the track stewards over an incident in Q2 when he impeded Fernando Alonso in the Alpine, with the four-time world champion picking up a three place grid penalty.

That left him down in 11th place, not the present he was expecting on his 34th birthday after qualifying eighth.

George Russell did a fine job to get his Williams into Q3 to take his place on the fifth row, later moving up to inherit Vettel’s fourth row spot.