Max Verstappen climbed out of his Red Bull with a smile and waved at the cheering fans in a relaxed manner.

The Formula 1 World Champion secured first place on the grid for the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Saturday and underlined his role as favorite for the race on Sunday (7 a.m. / Sky) with a flawless performance without any major difficulties. “I’m very happy with this lap and the pole,” said Verstappen, who has never won at Albert Park, which is steeped in tradition.

In his Red Bull, the defending champion edged out Brit George Russell in a Mercedes to second place. Verstappen drove the fastest lap in 1:16.732 minutes, Russell was 0.236 seconds behind. Third was record world champion Lewis Hamilton in the second Mercedes. Nico Hülkenberg finished tenth in the Haas racing car.

First third

“The last lap was really good,” said the 25-year-old Verstappen about his fastest lap and announced the goal for the Grand Prix: “I’ve been on the podium here before, but I’d like to be on a different level.”

The Dutchman has only made it onto the Australian podium in third place once so far, but now it should go further up. In 2015, at the age of just 17, Verstappen became the youngest Formula 1 driver in history to make his debut on the traditional circuit. The last victory for Red Bull in Melbourne was taken by Sebastian Vettel twelve years ago.

Before the third round of the season, Verstappen leads the overall standings by one point over his team-mate Sergio Perez. So far, both have won one Grand Prix each. Perez had secured first place on the grid two weeks ago in Saudi Arabia, but dropped out early in the pursuit of times in Melbourne. He probably also slipped off the track due to problems with the engine brake and had to start from the very back without a lap time. “It was really bad, a terrible day,” said the Mexican: “It’s very difficult to go into a race like that. I hope there won’t be any problems in the race. For me it’s all about damage limitation.”

Mercedes stark

On the other hand, things went surprisingly well for Mercedes. “We didn’t expect that. The car felt very alive,” said Russell. The 25-year-old said openly that he would have liked to have secured pole position. But the two-time world champion Verstappen was too strong for that. “I’m so happy,” said the 38-year-old superstar Hamilton, adding: “It’s completely unexpected and I’m very proud of the team. It’s a dream for us. To be so close to Red Bull, that’s real unbelievable.” In the race, however, it should be much more difficult to keep up with Verstappen’s pace.

Of course, this also applies to Hulkenberg. However, the only remaining German in the premier class of motorsport showed a strong qualification and secured a place in the top ten. “I’m satisfied, even if things didn’t go quite ideally in the end,” said the 35-year-old: “Perhaps a little more was possible. It could have been enough for eighth place.” On Sunday, Mick Schumacher’s successor wants to score his first World Cup points of the season at Haas. “Points are realistic and possible,” said Hulkenberg.