Lewis Hamilton was dealt the first significant blow of his title bid after he was penalised three grid places for Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix.
The world champion, having qualified second at the Red Bull Ring, was expected to be demoted to fifth, punished for blocking Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying.
But confusion reigned in the Styrian Mountains when the provisional grid, published more than four hours after the result, instead placed the Briton in fourth.
This is despite the FIA, Formula One’s governing body, insisting that Hamilton would definitely start one place lower.
F1’s complex rule book favoured Hamilton after Kevin Magnussen, the Haas driver who finished fifth, was also penalised five places for a gearbox change.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, 21, secured pole position, with Red Bull star Max Verstappen, also 21, promoted to second. The duo will form the youngest front row in the sport’s history.
For Sebastian Vettel, his torrid time of late extended into another weekend. An engine problem prevented him from starting a lap in the shootout for pole, and the German, already 76 points Hamilton in the championship standings, will start a lowly ninth.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas was promoted to third, while British teenager Lando Norris, just 19, will line up fifth – the rising McLaren star continuing to impress.
Hamilton should have been on the front row, but for an uncharacteristic mistake in the opening moments of qualifying.
He had just left the pits when Raikkonen, who was on a quick lap, came across the Briton’s sluggish Mercedes at the top of the hill on the approach to Turn 3.
Hamilton saw Raikkonen at the last minute, but in attempting to get out of the fast-approaching Finn’s way, he crossed in front of him and thwarted his lap.
“Hamilton completely blocked me,” said an angry Raikkonen on the team radio, giving Hamilton the middle finger.
Hamilton was hauled in front of the stewards, but after hearing from the world champion, and reviewing the video evidence, they deemed he “unnecessarily impeded” Raikkonen, throwing the Briton down the grid.
“I totally deserved the penalty and have no problem accepting it,” said Hamilton. “It was a mistake on my behalf, and I take full responsibly. It wasn’t intentional.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes boss Toto Wolff added: “The rule book says if you impede someone, and it is clear, then you get a three-place penalty.
“It is not the driver’s fault, but there is a precedent, and we have to accept that.”
Hamilton’s punishment has played its part in the topsy-turvy grid, providing hope of an exciting race – much-needed after last week’s tedious affair in France.
Leclerc will line up from the front for the second time in his career, the power-heavy track suiting the straight-line grunt in his Ferrari. The young Monegasque will be the favourite to win his first grand prix and end Mercedes’ unbeaten streak.
Meanwhile, Norris, the teenager from Somerset, has adapted to Formula One life with staggering ease. Here, he got the very best out of his McLaren to qualify sixth, before he was bumped up one spot after Magnussen’s punishment.
Norris’s fellow novice George Russell beat Robert Kubica in the sister Williams to extend his qualifying record over the Pole to a remarkable 9-0.
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Valtteri Bottas was taken to the medical centre after crashing out of second practice for the Austrian Grand Prix.
Bottas lost control of his Mercedes at 130mph through the left-handed sixth corner before slamming into the barriers.
The Finnish driver sustained serious damage to the front of his Mercedes in the accident.
Bottas emerged from his cockpit before heading to the on-track hospital after he triggered an impact of more than 25G.
Bottas’s incident was the second flashpoint at the Red Bull Ring after Max Verstappen also crashed out.
The Dutchman was taking on the penultimate corner when his Red Bull snapped away from him.
Verstappen spun backwards into the barriers, writing off the rear of his car. Like Bottas, he would play no further part in the session.
There was drama for Sebastian Vettel, too, who produced an almost carbon-copy of Verstappen’s mistake, but avoided any damage, the German coming to a halt before the barriers. He managed to limp back to the pits in his Ferrari.
It was Vettel’s team-mate Charles Leclerc who set the pace, the Monegasque finishing a third of a second faster than anybody else.
Mercedes have won every race this season, but Leclerc’s pace will provide the Scuderia with the hope they can finally challenge the all-conquering Silver Arrows this weekend.
Bottas’ time before his accident was good enough for second, with the Red Bull of Pierre Gasly third in the order.
Lewis Hamilton, who heads into Sunday’s race with a commanding 36-point championship lead over Bottas, topped the time charts in the opening running, but could finish only fourth later in the day.
The world champion, who is bidding for his fifth successive victory after dominating in France last weekend, finished 0.443 sec down on Leclerc.
Vettel, whose running was compromised by his spin, ended the day down in eighth.
McLaren are enjoying something of a resurgence this year, and Carlos Sainz posted the fifth quickest time. The Spaniard was within half a second of Leclerc.
His team-mate, British teenager Lando Norris, finished 10th, more than four tenths off Sainz.
George Russell again held the advantage over his Williams team-mate Robert Kubica. Russell was an eye-watering 1.3 sec faster than the struggling Pole.
Lewis Hamilton has put the pressure on Formula One’s owners Liberty Media to agree a new deal with Silverstone, insisting the sport cannot afford to walk away from the British Grand Prix.
Next month’s race is due to be the last staged at the Northamptonshire track unless a contract extension is agreed.
The race organisers had hoped to have a fresh deal in place at least a month before this year’s event. However, with just over a fortnight to go, talks remain ongoing.
It is understood that discussions have taken place this week, with an additional meeting pencilled in for after this weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix.
Hamilton, who has won five times at Silverstone, will head into his home race on July 14 as the championship leader, regardless of what happens at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday.
“I truly believe Liberty have got to keep Formula One in the UK and particularly Silverstone,” said Hamilton.
“It is an awesome track, an awesome place, with one of the biggest attendances of the season. You can’t turn your back on that.
“There are some really awesome circuits and Silverstone is one of those. The UK is the foundation of what this sport is.
“If you take away the legendary races and you are left with only new ones, you lose all of the history and culture of what makes Formula One what it is.”
Ahead of the 2017 British Grand Prix, Silverstone triggered a break clause in its contract in the hope of negotiating a better deal amid escalating hosting costs.
It was a public move that did not sit well with Liberty, who were just seven months into their reign at the time.
Liberty are keen to expand the calendar from 21 to 25 races and take the sport to major cities.
Vietnam will stage a race for the first time next year on the streets of its capital city Hanoi, while Zandvoort, 25 miles outside of Amsterdam, is also returning to the calendar after a three-decade absence in 2020.
Silverstone has been an ever-present on the calendar since 1987, while the British Grand Prix has held a permanent slot since the sport’s inception 69 years ago.
Provided by Press Association Sport