Lewis Hamilton is embracing the challenge facing Mercedes this season despite their struggles to compete for race wins in Formula One.

A second-place finish in Australia for Hamilton marked his best performance of the season, in a campaign that looks to be another difficult one for the team.

Mercedes ceded their Constructors' Championship title to rivals Red Bull last year, while Hamilton finished the year without a race win for the first time in his career, and remains significantly off the pace again in 2023.

Those struggles have reignited questions about Hamilton's future, with his deal set to expire at the end of the year, though he has affirmed his commitment to the team.

Tied with Michael Schumacher for the most F1 title wins of all time, an eighth crown would hand Hamilton the record outright, and he is ready to clinch that honour.

However, for the time being, he is focused on pushing himself to achieve the best possible result despite Mercedes' issues.

"I don't like driving not great cars. I don't like driving a car that's not the car that we weren't meant to have, but I love that challenge of 'OK, what can I do with it?'," he told Fox Sports.

"Wins are not possible right, so what is the maximum we can get? Can we be a little cheeky and if fifth is the best we can get, can we get a fourth or a third?

"Just make sure we are consistent and fit and ready so when the car does all of a sudden switch on, and it is the car you dreamed of having, you're ready.

"I am ready to win a world championship. I have prepared the best way I can this year – the best I have ever prepared – and if the car comes correct tomorrow I will be ready to fight for the world championship, but unfortunately that's not the case.

"I am working with everyone here and back at the factory to get there."

Lewis Hamilton still does not feel comfortable in his Mercedes but has renewed confidence the team can fight to challenge Red Bull after a strong showing at an incident-packed Australian Grand Prix.

In a race that saw three red flags at Albert Park, Hamilton finished second behind world champion Max Verstappen, who has won two of the opening three races in the 2023 season.

Hamilton consequently returned to the podium for the first time since the penultimate race of the 2022 campaign in Brazil.

The Briton said he is still trying to get a connection with the car, but feels the team have an opportunity to narrow the gap to the dominant Red Bulls.

"It was [a crazy race]. I have had the best week here this week," Hamilton said.

"I still feel uncomfortable in the car, I don't feel connected to it so I am driving as best I can with that disconnect and I am working as hard as I can to try and create that connect but it is a long project.

"But still, considering we have been down on performance and the straight pace compared to the Red Bulls, for us to be up here fighting with Aston, it is just amazing at this point in the season.

"We have got to keep on fighting. Big, big thank you to everybody back at the factory, let's keep pushing.

"If we can close that gap, it is going to be tough, but it isn't impossible." 

Team-mate George Russell lost the lead amid the drama of the first red flag and later had to retire with a power-unit issue.

Hamilton added: "It was really unlucky for George. On our side, we have got to look into our reliability, which has generally been really good, so that is really unfortunate.

"Otherwise to get those points is really amazing. I definitely didn't expect to be second. So I am super grateful for it."

On his disappointing premature end to the race, Russell said: "Yeah, I guess when it's not your day, it's not your day, and pretty disappointed initially with the decision to red flag the race.

"Everything we've done this weekend has been good: qualifying was great, the start was great, the restart was great, the strategy decision was the right one. It's just such a shame to be stood here right now."

Max Verstappen continued Red Bull's fine start to the Formula One season as he won his first Australian Grand Prix in a chaotic race on Sunday.

The double world champion did not have it all his own way after dropping from pole position to third as he was passed by George Russell and Lewis Hamilton in the resurgent Mercedes on the opening lap.

There were three red flags, with Russell losing the lead amid the drama around the first and he was later forced to retire, with Verstappen overtaking Hamilton to go in front on lap 12.

Verstappen charged clear from there to claim a second win from three races. He finished ahead of Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, though there was more drama and confusion before the final result was confirmed.

Sergio Perez started in the pit lane after opting to change his car under parc ferme regulations due to his issues in qualifying, but he was able to salvage a fifth-place finish.

Russell overtook Verstappen down the inside of the first corner and with the Dutchman on the back foot Hamilton forced his own way through.

Last year's winner Charles Leclerc was in the gravel after contact with Lance Stroll, ending the Ferrari driver's race and bringing out the safety car in a thrilling start.

The safety was car called out again on lap 7 after Alex Albon hit the wall, with leader Russell diving into the pits.

However, that move backfired when a red flag followed soon after, leaving Hamilton and Verstappen – who had not stopped – with an advantage and Russell down in seventh.

Russell promptly got back up for fourth after the restart, but it was not his day as he then lost power with the back of his car on fire.

At the front, Verstappen clearly had the most pace and easily reclaimed the lead by sweeping past Hamilton round the outside in a DRS-assisted move.

A Verstappen victory rarely looked in doubt from there until a late crash for Kevin Magnussen caused a second red flag.

In a dramatic restart, contact between Carlos Sainz and Alonso caused an immediate third red flag and looked to have ended the Aston Martin veteran's podium hopes.

A period of confusion then followed as the FIA determined what rules would be applied and Alonso was reprieved as it ordered the race to finish with the same order as existed before the restart, with Sainz receiving a time penalty.

Lewis Hamilton suspects Mercedes' sensational Saturday in Melbourne may not be achievable at other tracks and is still unsure if he and George Russell can fight to win the Australian Grand Prix.

Mercedes drivers and officials had been pessimistic in their forecasts for the season prior to qualifying in this week's third race.

But Russell secured a place on the front row alongside Max Verstappen, with Hamilton qualifying third-fastest to put the Silver Arrows in a great position to attack Red Bull's world champion.

"I'm a little bit surprised; maybe they are also a little bit surprised," Verstappen said in Saturday's press conference. "But I guess it's a good thing."

It is certainly a good thing for Mercedes, although Hamilton is not convinced this means all their issues have gone away.

"I think it's perhaps track-specific," he said, "but I think ultimately there's no one in the team that's had their heads down, in terms of giving up.

"Everyone's been working incredibly hard to try to squeeze the most out of what we currently have."

Verstappen had not previously qualified on pole in Melbourne, where he is still waiting for his first win.

Hamilton has a joint-record eight poles at this event, winning twice, and added: "I think this gives everyone in the team a boost and a glimpse of hope and this will spur everyone on and will inspire everyone to continue to push.

"We know that if we can just bring a little bit of performance, we can close the gap to the front. Still, there are going to be places where the gap is a lot bigger."

Russell did not entirely concur, countering: "For sure, we maximised the job, no doubt about it, but we had a good qualifying last week in Jeddah.

"I didn't put my lap together in the last run in Jeddah and was only a tenth off P3.

"So no, I don't think it's necessarily track-specific. I do think we're making some improvement with the understanding of the car."

But Hamilton and Russell were in agreement that Red Bull, even with Sergio Perez encountering issues and failing to make it out of Q1, remain the team to beat.

Russell said: "I do still think Red Bull are a class ahead of everybody else.

"For sure Lewis and I got the most out of it today, [but] by the sounds of what Max is saying, there was probably still a little bit more in the locker.

"And we're talking that three-tenths is a little bit – normally, they're a second ahead; now, they're three-tenths ahead – that's still a huge amount in the world of F1."

If only for this weekend, though, can Mercedes challenge Red Bull for the top step of the podium? Hamilton still does not know.

"I haven't even done a long run," he explained. "So tomorrow, going into the race, will be the first time I do so.

"And I've not seen where we tally up compared to them. We have to expect they're going to be a quarter of a second, half a second, at least, quicker than us.

"But maybe in the tow, maybe we can just about hold on; maybe the fact that there's two of us and only one Red Bull, maybe with strategy, maybe we can apply some pressure to them. So, we'll see."

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.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

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)

Lewis Hamilton believes Mercedes will require the rest of the Formula One campaign to get into a position where they can challenge early pacesetters Red Bull.

Red Bull have started the 2023 season with back-to-back one-twos, with Max Verstappen triumphing at the Bahrain Grand Prix and Sergio Perez winning in Saudi Arabia last time out.

Mercedes, meanwhile, sit third in the constructors' championship having started a second consecutive year off the pace, with Hamilton posting successive fifth-place finishes.

Speaking ahead of this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, Hamilton was pessimistic about his team's chances of matching Red Bull in the short term.

"It is going to take us the rest of the year to potentially close that gap," the seven-time world champion said.

"If you look at the Red Bull, it is just going to continue to evolve most likely. Some cars do plateau in terms of performance. At some point it can't just keep going. But maybe it can.

"They have a great team around them and I am sure they will continue to add downforce.

"We just have to make sure when we do make the change, hopefully the drop isn't too far, and it is going to take us the rest of the year, for sure, to potentially close that gap."

Hamilton has been outspoken in his criticism of Mercedes' troubled W14 car, which the team plan to make major alterations to just two races into the season.

Expanding on the car's issues, Hamilton said: "I don't know if people know, but we sit closer to the front wheels than all the other drivers. Our cockpit is too close to the front.

"What that does is it really changes the attitude of the car and how you perceive its movement. It makes it harder to predict compared to when you're further back and sitting more centred. It is just something I have really struggled with.

"There is a part of me that is just hopeful we find the trick and are straight on to the right track that is not far away from the others."

George Russell has refuted Lewis Hamilton's suggestion his result at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was down to luck – and Hamilton has now explained his comments.

Russell finished fourth in Jeddah, though he looked set to take third place when Fernando Alonso was penalised.

Aston Martin managed to overturn that decision, leaving Russell in fourth, one place ahead of Mercedes team-mate Hamilton.

Seven-time Formula One world champion Hamilton seemed to suggest after the race that Russell made a fortunate choice when deciding to alter his set-up.

Hamilton claimed that call would "more often than not" have been wrong. Russell, however, disagrees.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, Russell said: "I don't think there's any luck in it at all.

"I think it's down to the preparation you put in before the event.

"The changes we made overnight, I knew that was going to be the right direction with the work we did with the team. And I believed it was going to be better than the set-up that Lewis opted for.

"I think everybody's got different preferences, I was happy with the direction I took and the work I'm doing with the engineers."

Keen to avoid any animosity, Hamilton sought to clarify what he had meant in Jeddah.

He said: "I want to reiterate how great a job George did.

"I think the thing I was commenting on is that there's one specific thing that you can change in the suspension that you have to do over Friday night, and when you make that change, once you start P3, you can't change it for the rest of the weekend, so when you make that change, you're basically rolling the dice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

"I've done it in the past. Sometimes it hasn't worked, sometimes it has, and it worked great for George and he did a great job.

"The thing that I was lacking in the race was a lot of front end, which that set-up gives you, so, in hindsight, that would've been great."

Lewis Hamilton needs support from his fellow Formula 1 drivers to fill the gap left behind by Sebastian Vettel in championing human rights issues, says former McLaren head of communications Matt Bishop.

The pair have formed the cornerstone of the sport's stands against injustice and have voiced vocal support for a multitude of social causes, in particular the LGBTQ+ community, during their time in F1.

With Vettel's retirement at the end of last season, however, Hamilton has been left to lead from the front, particularly amid the sport's powerbrokers moving to censor political protests on race weekends.

Ahead of this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, Bishop – who helped create the Racing Pride organisation to support the LGBTQ+ community in motorsport – has called for the void to be filled in support of the Briton.

"[Vettel] absolutely saw Lewis as somebody who he could confide in, who he could seek counsel from," he told Sky Sports.

"I think it was mutual. They both saw each other as somebody who 'gets it' in the same way. I'm not trying to criticise any of the other drivers by the way – I worked with many of them, and it takes all sorts to make a world.

"But I suppose I would now like some of the other drivers to consider whether they could perhaps fill the void Sebastian has vacated, because Lewis is a tiny bit on his own now."

Bishop's comments come after three-time world champion Nelson Piquet was last week fined £780,000 for racist and homophobic comments made about Hamilton during an interview from November 2021.

"The most important thing is that in Brazil that wrong was righted and I know he's got to pay a big fine," Bishop said.

"I assume he can afford it and I do hope, which presumably was the objective, that it will deter other people from speaking in such an appalling way moving forward."

Mercedes are missing the influence of Niki Lauda amid their ongoing struggles, team principal Toto Wolff said.

Three-time champion Lauda held a non-executive chairman role with Mercedes until his death in 2019 and played an integral role during the team's dominant years in Formula One.

That spell at the top now seems a million miles away, having conceded the Constructors' Championship to Red Bull last season when they won just a single race.

Mercedes' struggles look set to continue in 2023 after failing to get on the podium in either of the first two races of the season in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where Red Bull dominated.

While the team are in need of development upgrades to close the gap on their rivals, Wolff outlined why the absence of Lauda is also a hindrance.

"Niki's missed all those years because Niki always simplified things to really what mattered," he said.

"I'm having to think what would he have said, and how would he have positioned [things], and the two of us worked well together in that sense that sometimes oversimplification can lead you straight to the results.

"But there are lots of nuances. This is a technical sport, so maybe my role was to translate it in a way that we actually were able to execute it in the car design.

"But this is very simple: the stopwatch never lies, and we see on the data where we are missing and that needs to be corrected."

Christian Horner has ruled out Red Bull making a move to snatch Lewis Hamilton from rivals Mercedes at the end of the season.

The seven-time Formula One champion looks set to endure another difficult season with Mercedes, having failed to win a race in 2022 – the first year in his career without a victory.

Mercedes' struggles have reignited the debate around Hamilton's future, with the British driver's deal due to expire at the end of the season, and team principal Toto Wolff accepted there can be no complaints in the years to come if Hamilton moves elsewhere.

However, Red Bull would not make a move if Hamilton was to become available, with Horner adamant Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez will remain put for next season.

"What Lewis has achieved in F1 is second to none, but we're very happy with the drivers that we have," he told Sky News.

"They're committed as a pair not only this season but the next season as well. So, I can't see where we would be able to accommodate Lewis."

While Mercedes have struggled so far this season, failing to secure a podium in either of the opening two races, Horner expects the team to improve over the course of the year.

"I'm sure they're going to sort their issues out – we're certainly not writing him off yet," he added.

"We're hearing about big Mercedes upgrades. I'm sure Ferrari aren't happy with their current position as well. So, we're fully expecting things to converge quickly."

Hamilton has spent the past decade with Mercedes and has won six of his seven world titles with the team, the other coming in 2008 during a five-year stint with McLaren.

Fernando Alonso's 100th podium finish in Formula One has been reinstated after Aston Martin appealed a decision to hand him a 10-second penalty at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

Alonso celebrated consecutive third-placed finishes on Sunday, having taken the lead from Sergio Perez early on before receiving a five-second penalty for an incorrect starting position on the grid.

The Spaniard recovered to finish behind Red Bull duo Perez and Max Verstappen, but an investigation after the race concluded he had not served his full five-second punishment while in the pit lane.

Mercedes' George Russell moved up to third after an Aston Martin engineer was said to have placed the rear jack on the back of Alonso's car just before the end of his penalty.

Alonso subsequently claimed that decision "didn't hurt too much" but criticised a "poor show" from the FIA, though the two-time world champion will be more content after his team's appeal was successful.

The outcome of Aston Martin's bid to reverse the penalty was announced shortly after 1am in Jeddah, confirming Alonso's century of podium finishes.

Alonso is just the sixth driver to reach that figure, after Lewis Hamilton (191), Michael Schumacher (155), Sebastian Vettel (122), Alain Prost (106) and Kimi Raikkonen (103).

Race stewards said they were shown footage of seven similar incidents in which cars were touched by the jack while serving a time penalty – all of which went unpunished – as part of the appeal.

Lewis Hamilton feels Mercedes have shown progress after the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix but Toto Wolff is still determined to see the team challenge for victory.

The Briton finished fifth in the second race of the season, improving on his seventh-place position on the starting grid as Sergio Perez led a one-two Red Bull lockout.

Team-mate George Russell meanwhile provided the Silver Arrows with their first podium of the year, after he was elevated to third following a penalty against Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso.

After a build-up dominated by the topic of the seven-time world champion's future, Hamilton acknowledged he was satisfied to make some steps in the right direction, no matter how small.

"We got some great points for the team," he told Sky Sports. "George got third and he did amazing. I went forwards. I'm really grateful to have come from seventh to fifth.

"The strategy didn't really work out for me, the set-up was a little bit off. [There is] lots to work on but there are positives to take away from it.

"I could only match [Russell's] pace rather than be quicker this weekend, but I'll work hard to make sure we're in a better position next weekend."

After taking fifth and seventh at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Saudi Arabia represented an improvement for Mercedes as a whole.

But Wolff is keen to see the team back among the frontrunners on the grid, stating of their performance; "We want to race for wins soon. We are [the] first loser.

"The question is what is [our] benchmark. If you look at the Red Bulls, they are just so quick. I think we understand the car more and I am looking optimistic for the future.

"We are making big elephant steps at the moment. But it is going to be a long time till we can challenge Red Bull. It is a super fun journey to climb back."

Russell, who missed out on standing on the podium before he was retroactively awarded third, acknowledges their rivals remain far ahead of the pack, but believes Mercedes are closer than many think.

"You have to give credit to what Red Bull have done," he added. "The gap they have to the rest of the field is bigger than we have seen since perhaps Mercedes in 2014. It is a serious, serious gap.

"But we know we didn't make the right decisions over the winter and we can regain some of that performance quicker than you would do ordinarily. All is not lost. We'll focus on ourselves and get the fundamentals right."

Mercedes posted a better day than rivals Ferrari, who saw Charles Leclerc forced to take a 10-place grid penalty before the race for a power unit change.

The Monegasque driver finished seventh, one place behind team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr., leaving team principal Frederic Vasseur to mull over a below-par weekend.

"It's not a good result," he added. "We didn't have the pace, we have to be honest. We have positive points from the weekend.

"[But] we have to understand where the lack of performance is coming from. It is not coming from the management."

Fernando Alonso hit out at the FIA after he was denied a 100th podium of his Formula One career due to a time penalty.

Alonso finished third in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday, seemingly grabbing his second podium of the season for Aston Martin.

The Spaniard had taken the lead from polesitter Sergio Perez early on, yet was penalised for an incorrect starting position on the grid.

He recovered to cross in third, yet an investigation after the race concluded that one of the team's engineers had placed the rear jack on the back of Alonso's car just before that five-second penalty had been served in the pit lane.

Alonso was subsequently handed a 10-second penalty that saw him drop out of the podium places, with Mercedes driver George Russell benefiting.

Aston Martin might well appeal the decision, and Alonso suggested he cares little about the FIA's ruling after he already celebrated becoming only the sixth driver in F1 history to claim 100 podium finishes.

"I was good and it doesn't hurt too much to be honest," he told Sky Sports. "I was on the podium, I did pictures, I took the trophy, I celebrated and now I have apparently three points less – I don't have 15, I have 12. 

"I think it is more FIA, poor show today. More than disappointment from ourselves. You cannot apply a penalty 35 laps after the pitstop.

"They had enough time to inform me about the penalty because even if I knew that maybe then I open up 11 seconds to the car behind. 

"I know the team is trying to review it with the stewards now because we didn't understand fully the second penalty.

"I care, but I don't care that much as I have celebrated and now I have three points less? OK, let's try and recover in Australia."

Aston Martin team principal Mike Krack told Sky Sports: "First of all we need to look at the videos what happened exactly so right now I can not really say how this is going to go.

"The regulation said you may not work on the car, it's maybe a little bit ambiguous but this is something we need to look at, we have a clear procedure for it, a countdown, and everything was fully safe. No advantage came from it so let's see how this develops."

Russell, who claimed third place, described the decision to penalise Alonso as "harsh", though he added: "They are the deserved podium finishers but I will take the extra trophy and not complain too much!"

Alonso, meanwhile, reflected on a strong weekend as Aston Martin look ahead to the next race in Melbourne at the start of April.

"We had some concerns about Jeddah after being very strong in Bahrain but arguably here, we were faster than Bahrain on race pace," he said.

"We could control the Ferraris, we could control Mercedes and I don't want to be too optimistic but it looks pretty good for the future."

Sergio Perez claimed glory in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as Max Verstappen charged through the field to maintain his lead in the Formula One championship.

Polesitter Perez initially fell behind to Fernando Alonso at the start of Sunday's race in Jeddah, yet the latter was handed a five-second penalty for an incorrect starting position on the grid.

Perez did not relinquish the lead again, holding firm to seal his fifth F1 win, and his second in the space of seven races following his success in Singapore last season.

Red Bull team-mate Verstappen, starting 15th, had work to do after dropping out in Q2 on Saturday, though the two-time reigning champion displayed his supreme skill – and the power of his engine – to charge up to second.

He had overtaken long-time rival Lewis Hamilton for P8 by the 12th lap, and after Lance Stroll was told to stop on the track, bringing out a safety car, Verstappen was attempting to overtake George Russell's Mercedes.

Russell held him off once but could not do so again, with Verstappen cruising beyond Alonso to take hold of second in the 25th lap.

Verstappen, who had his rear suspension and both driveshafts changed prior to the race, was troubled by what he called a "weird noise" with 12 laps remaining, though Red Bull's engineers instructed the Dutchman to stay out.

That did not seem to ease Verstappen's fears, though he pushed his car as far as it would go in the final lap, and that decision paid off as he claimed the fastest time in the race, keeping himself at the top of the standings after two races.

Alonso fended off Mercedes duo Russell and Hamilton to round out the podium – the Spaniard's 100th of his F1 career.

After failing to finish in 2022, Alex Albon suffered another disappointing race in Jeddah as a brake issue forced him to retire.

Charles Leclerc endured a frustrating grand prix and had to settle for seventh, behind Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz.

Red Bull still managed to get on pole for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, with Sergio Perez topping the timesheets after Max Verstappen's driveshaft issue, and Charles Leclerc conceded the defending champions are "on another planet".

Verstappen was stunningly knocked out of Q2 after the mechanical failure forced him to limp back to the pits.

That left the fight for pole in Jeddah wide open but Perez shut the door for Red Bull's rivals, claiming his second career pole at the circuit where he claimed his first last year with a lap of one minute and 28.265 seconds.

Leclerc was second for Ferrari, but his 10-place grid drop for taking on too many control electronics units will see him start 12th, with Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso taking his place on the front row after qualifying third.

While Leclerc, who challenged Verstappen last season before reliability and strategy problems dashed his hopes, was pleased with his performance, he was realistic about the Scuderia's capabilities compared to those of Red Bull.

"It has been a very difficult weekend in terms of pace for us but on my lap I think I put everything into it and it was really on the limit," said Leclerc, who was just 0.155 seconds behind Perez.

"On the other hand, Red Bull are on another planet and we are struggling a little bit, so we need to keep pushing, but that is what we are doing as a team.

"Tomorrow isn't going to be easy. I have a 10-place grid penalty, so we will be starting a little bit further back, but we will focus on the race and hopefully come back to the front as quickly as possible." 

Asked about apparent improvements in race pace in Friday's second free practice session, Leclerc replied: "The race pace looked quite good but it's very difficult to compare because in FP2 everyone is running a different programme, but it seemed a little bit better. 

"We will see but it is not going to be easy because I think everyone is going to be very close on race pace."

Alonso's mood was in stark contrast to that of Leclerc, the two-time world champion clearly revelling in being a car that can compete at the front again.

"Qualifying was our weak spot in Bahrain but we performed very well [here] so let’s see what we can do. It is amazing," Alonso said.

"We are confident, the gap on the long runs [on Friday] was affected by traffic, so we feel very strong. The strongest point of the car is the long-run pace and how we treat the tyres, so it should be better on Sunday."

George Russell will start third for Mercedes after qualifying fourth, four spots ahead of team-mate Lewis Hamilton.

Russell will have Leclerc's team-mate Carlos Sainz for company on the second row, with Lance Stroll in the other Aston Martin behind them on an intriguing grid.

Verstappen, who has won the last two world titles and tasted victory in the Bahrain season-opener, will start in 15th position.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Sergio Perez (Red Bull)
2. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) [has 10-place grid penalty]
3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin)
4. George Russell (Mercedes)
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari)
6. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin)
7. Esteban Ocon (Alpine)
8. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
9. Oscar Piastri (McLaren)
10. Pierre Gasly (Alpine)

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