Motor Sports

Verstappen takes Saudi pole, casts doubt on Red Bull future

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia: Max Verstappen on Friday took pole position for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix before calling into question his future with Red Bull after his mentor was threatened with suspension in another dramatic twist in the Christian Horner saga.

The three-time world champion clocked a fastest lap of one minute 27.472 seconds to outpace Ferrari's Charles Leclerc by three-tenths of a second with his team-mate Sergio Perez third in a tense floodlit qualifying session.

It was Verstappen's 34th pole position and his first at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

However, his performance on the track was overshadowed again by bitter wrangling off it.

His mentor and Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko is facing an inquiry and possible suspension after he was suspected of being the source of leaks to news media about Red Bull's investigation into the conduct of team boss Horner.

Verstappen, 26, was unequivocal in his support for the 80-year-old Marko.

"My loyalty to him is very big. I have always expressed this to everyone within the team, to everyone high up, that he is an important part in my decision-making for the future within the team," said the Dutchman.

"It is very important that he stays within the team. I feel like if such an important pillar falls away, what I have said to the team, that is not good for my situation as well. For me, Helmut has to stay."

Marko admitted to Austrian broadcaster ORF that a suspension was not out of the question.

"I would say that it is difficult to judge, or let's say that in the end I will decide myself what I'm doing," he said.

"The theoretical possibility (of a suspension) still exists. It's a very complex matter. We want peace in the team."

Horner, 50, was cleared by Red Bull following an internal investigation into claims by a female member of staff that she had been the victim of "inappropriate behaviour."

She was suspended by the team on Thursday as Horner, who has strenuously denied claims of wrongdoing, told reporters it was "time to look forward and draw a line" under the controversy.

There have also been reports of a major bust-up at last week's Bahrain Grand Prix between Horner and Jos Verstappen, the father of Max.

Verstappen senior said Red Bull will "explode" if Horner remains in his position.

Max Verstappen leapt to the defence of his father, a former F1 driver.

"My dad, he is not a liar," said the champion who has been with Red Bull since 2016 after graduating from the team's sister outfit Toro Rosso.

Back on the track on Friday, the action was lit up by the performance of British teenager Oliver Bearman who qualified 11th for Ferrari on his competitive F1 debut.

The 18-year-old was dramatically called up earlier in the day to replace appendicitis-victim Carlos Sainz.

Fernando Alonso was a bold fourth for Aston Martin ahead of McLaren's Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris and the two Mercedes of George Russell and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.

Yuki Tsunoda was ninth for RB ahead of Lance Stroll of Aston Martin and Bearman.

"It's a fantastic opportunity," said 18-year-old Bearman. "It was a fun day."

Verstappen, who won from fourth on the grid last year, was also happy.

"It was a very good day," said the Dutchman who swept to victory in last weekend's season-opener in Bahrain.

"We improved the car a little bit overnight and that gave me more confidence to attack the high-speed corners."

Leclerc said: "I put everything together for that lap. I hope Carlos can recover quickly, but on Ollie's side he has done an incredible job after just one session and he was straight up to speed. I am happy for him."

Bearman, who had only made his Ferrari debut hours earlier in final practice, was one of the first on track when the lights went green.

Sainz, who remarkably drove in both of Thursday's practice sessions, underwent surgery on Friday morning, hoping to recover in time for the Australian Grand Prix on March 24.

Between the sessions, Audi confirmed their takeover of the Sauber team ahead of a 2026 entry, news that cheered the Swiss team, after Zhou Guanyu's heavy late crash in third practice. --AFP

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