How Hamilton and Mercedes turned the tables on Red Bull

Lewis Hamilton's 99th career pole position might look like business as usual on paper, but it was another example of him beating quicker cars when the heat was on.

Both Red Bull drivers were kicking themselves for tiny mistakes they felt cost them pole position, but both are in a great position to apply the pressure at Sunday's Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

Behind the frontrunners, the midfield fight looks closer than ever.

Here's our round-up of the main talking points from qualifying.

Mercedes close the gap to Red Bull

The surprised tone of race engineer Peter Bonnington's voice over team radio after Lewis Hamilton took pole position told you everything you needed to know about Mercedes' expectations ahead of qualifying.

The team was confident it would make a step forward this weekend compared to Bahrain, where the gap to Max Verstappen stood at 0.4s in qualifying, but that confidence did not stretch to realistic hopes of a pole position.

In truth, the team's pre-session expectations were probably a closer match with the ultimate pace of the cars than the final standings were, as Verstappen made a mess of his second flying lap in qualifying and had to settle for third.

As was the case the Bahrain race, Hamilton made the difference by making sure his car was in a position to capitalise on a mistake should it occur.

The 99th pole position of his career was his reward.

"The fact is, as you saw in the last race, there was a good gap to the Red Bulls," Hamilton said after the session.

"We did feel we could close it up a little bit coming into this weekend but that was a really clean qualifying session [to take pole].

"In terms of my own performance, I am really grateful that I am still making steps in the right direction. It was a real surprise.

"I don't think anyone in the team expected to be on pole today but of course, that's what I was gunning for.

"It really was the tidiest lap I could put together and a little bit more."

While Sergio Perez deserves credit for qualifying 0.035s off Hamilton in just his second race for Red Bull, there was an expectation that Verstappen would be the faster of the two Red Bulls.

Not only did Verstappen's disappointing lap leave him third on the grid, it was also the first time since 2018 he was outpaced by a teammate in qualifying.

"In Q3 on the final run I just didn't have a good lap," Verstappen said. "I went off at Turn 3 with two wheels, I know that Honda makes good lawnmowers but I don't think this one was suited for that! But at least I tried.

"It was just a really scrappy lap, I haven't had that in a long time so I just need to understand why that happened."

Although it is only the second qualifying session of the season, the frustration will be building at Red Bull.

The car was quick enough to win the race in Bahrain and it was quick enough to take pole position today. The battle with Mercedes looks set to be so tight this year that such opportunities could make the difference by the end of the season, and Hamilton's improved performance on Saturday was also a clear warning to Red Bull that Mercedes has made progress since Bahrain.

"It's always more than one factor [that accounts for changes in performance]," Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. "Clearly Lewis' lap today was very good. We have worked hard to sort out some of the balance issues we had in Bahrain and we have made a decent step there.

"The drivability of the power unit has got better and the track conditions are obviously very different to Bahrain, so all of that has played a factor. But if you one-to-one compare the laps to Red Bull, Max without the mistakes would have solidly been on pole -- maybe not by as much as in Bahrain but he would have been there. So it was about not making mistakes and all that gave us the pole position today

The cool temperatures, smooth tarmac and calm winds in Imola all helped provide a much happier environment for the Mercedes W11 and, combined with the minor upgrades to engine software and the car, it was enough to get Mercedes within striking distance of Red Bull.

The respective performances of Verstappen and Hamilton did the rest.

One Mercedes v two Red Bulls

Qualifying on pole position would usually represent more than half the battle at a circuit like Imola where overtaking is difficult, yet Mercedes and Hamilton still face an almighty challenge to beat Red Bull in Sunday's race.

We've seen the lone Red Bull of Verstappen struggle to compete against two fast Mercedes cars on a number of occasions in recent years, but on Sunday the tables will be turned.

The second Mercedes will start the race from eighth on the grid after a disappointing performance from Valtteri Bottas, with two McLarens, an AlphaTauri and a Ferrari separating the Finn from the podium places.

As a result, Red Bull will be in a position to mimic some of the strategy options Mercedes exercised to such effect in Bahrain in order to prise the lead from the lead car.

What's more, Perez will start the race on the soft tyres after using that compound to set his fastest time in Q2, while Hamilton and Verstappen will start on the mediums.

The better race-long strategy options are provided by starting on the mediums, but the softs will offer short-term gain in the form of better traction away from the start and a good reason to pit early and try to play an undercut against Hamilton.

"It's an advantage they have," Wolff said. "You would say normally that starting on the soft is not as good, but here it is an offset strategy and it is not much worse than starting on the mediums.

"For sure, with two cars we know it is always an advantage and then an offset strategy gives them another shot."

If Red Bull can find a way of positioning Perez ahead of Hamilton on track after the first pit stops, Verstappen's chances of finding a way past later in the race will be significantly improved even if Perez's race falls away from him.

"I can't remember the last time we've seen the two Red Bulls so close," Hamilton said. "I think tomorrow, of course, if we're able to get off in order, then they have a bit of a better set of cards in terms of strategy.

"That doesn't mean we can't pull out something unique and do something different. I am not really sure what happened with Valtteri, it's really hard to overtake here so I probably won't have the support of him early on.

"Nevertheless, maybe he will make it though but otherwise, we just need to focus on our job and trying do absolutely everything and more to keep these guys behind."

Of course, a wet race, as is forecast, would throw all those carefully planned strategies out the window.

Gasly shows what Tsunoda is lacking

There's a lot of hype around Yuki Tsunoda at the moment but, for the second weekend in a row, Pierre Gasly lived up to the potential of the AlphaTauri as the Japanese rookie faltered.

Tsunoda's session did not last long, as he lost control out of the car out of Variante Alta and hit the wall. It was a great reminder that, for all his obvious talent, Tsunoda still has plenty of unpolished edges at this stage of his career.

Tsunoda - who was unhurt in the crash -- took the blame and clearly knew it was an opportunity wasted.

"I was just pushing too much at entry, to be honest," Tsunoda said.

"Until then the lap felt great, actually. I think that potentially it was easy to go through Q1 with one tyre.

"I was just too excited. For me, that was a silly mistake, so I feel really sorry for the team. You have to reset today, and just drive the race tomorrow."

At this point, Gasly's performances shouldn't be a surprise. Last year's Italian Grand Prix winner is still performing at the top level and has developed into one of the grid's most exciting young talents.

Were it not for contact with Daniel Ricciardo at the start of the Bahrain Grand Prix he might well have challenged for fifth (or better). If he gets a clean start on Sunday, Gasly is in an excellent position to capitalise on any drama out in front.

As for Tsunoda, we will get to see a second straight fight through the field in a quick car, although overtaking opportunities are at a premium at Imola compared to Bahrain. It will be fascinating to see how Tsunoda makes up for his mistake.

Norris the star... for a second

For the briefest of moments in Q3, it looked like Lando Norris had turned in a career best qualifying performance. When he crossed the line for the final time he was second, albeit with neither Red Bull driver to have finished their lap.

His time was just marginally shy of Lewis Hamilton's pole position benchmark but it was quickly deleted from the timing screen, as Norris had exceeded track limits at Turn 9.

Replays showed he had only just put all four wheels over the line, too, although a transgression is a transgression regardless of how far over they are.

When asked about that moment, Norris said: "Yeah, pretty disappointed, pretty annoyed with myself.

"I think it was a very good day until then, the team did an awesome job. You know, the car really came alive in qualifying.

"We made a lot of improvements on Friday, but that one lap that I don't need to make a mistake on I effed it all up.

"It's the same for everyone, so at the end of the day it's my mistake."

It denied Norris the chance to out-qualify Daniel Ricciardo for the second weekend in a row. He will start in seventh, one place behind Ricciardo, but can take comfort in the fact McLaren appears to have a quick car at Imola.

With Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly starting ahead of the McLaren pair there is a fascinating midfield fight in store on Sunday afternoon.

What happened to Bottas?

As mentioned above, Valtteri Bottas' absence from the top four places on the grid will put Mercedes at a disadvantage on Sunday.

His pace during practice had looked on par with or even ahead of Hamilton, yet when it mattered in the final stages of qualifying he failed to hook a lap together.

"Valtteri was pretty good all weekend in Turns 2 and 3, but both drivers had [tyre] warm-up issues at the beginning of the lap in Q3," team boss Toto Wolff explained.

"In Q1, once we were able to give Valtteri a second lap to bring in the tyres, he was really very good -- I think the Q1 lap would have got him on P4,

"So it was a warm-up issue. We know exactly what it is, and Valtteri knows, but he is in an OK position for the race tomorrow."

Honourable mentions

Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll deserve credit for making Q3 at the expense of teammates with multiple world titles to their name.

Ocon has appeared to be in a no-win situation alongside Fernando Alonso this year but he was the Alpine driver to progress to Q3.

Alonso said his lack of mileage in the Alpine caught up to him at a track as challenging as Imola.

"I need to understand better where is the limit of the car, maybe in difficult tracks," he said. "On demanding circuits like this one, you need to have a trust level in the car.

"These old-school tracks require some trust in the car and confidence to push at the limit while qualifying arrives.

"Maybe I'm not into that level yet. I will try to improve for the next one."

Stroll also made it through to the final session, although he did not set a Q3 time. Stroll splits in opinion in F1 but has shown flashes of real talent in his career and so far has looked to have the measure of his teammate, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel.

Williams also deserves plaudits for getting both George Russell and Nicholas Latifi into Q2. The fact Russell was disappointed in missing out on Q3, which was less than 0.1s away, shows just how far it has come since the end of last season.