Lewis Hamilton signed a new £80million Mercedes contract and then admitted he is set to lose further ground in the title battle after he was blown away by Max Verstappen in Austrian Grand Prix qualifying.
Hamilton, who will start only fourth for Sunday’s race, will extend his 15-season Formula One career until at least the end of 2023 following the announcement of a two-year deal.
Hamilton’s current 12-month extension, which he signed just six weeks before the start of his title defence, saw his earnings drop to around £30m due to the financial strain placed on Mercedes’ parent company Daimler amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But it is understood the seven-time world champion’s pre-Covid-19 wages will be restored, nudging him close to £40m-a-season, in a contract which will carry him to within a week of his 39th birthday.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team have been the dominant force in F1 in recent history – with the British driver racing to six of the last seven championships – but Red Bull are on course for their fifth straight win following Verstappen’s third pole in as many weeks.
The Red Bull Ring will be at 60,000 capacity for Sunday’s race – F1’s biggest crowd of the Covid era – and the overwhelming majority are in town to support Verstappen. The Dutchman’s orange-clad supporters cheered in delight as he scored his seventh career pole.
However, Verstappen was pushed all the way by Lando Norris The Englishman missed out on a shock result by just half-a-tenth to finish a career best-second.
It means a McLaren will occupy the front row of a grand prix for the first time since Hamilton’s last outing for the British team at the concluding round in Brazil almost nine years ago.
Sergio Perez starts third, one spot ahead of Hamilton, who was an eye-watering half-a-second slower than Verstappen, with Valtteri Bottas fifth in the other Mercedes.
“Is a win out of the question? I would say so,” said Hamilton. “In terms of pure pace, it is definitely out of the question. It will be an easy cruise win for Max. I have to get ahead of at least Perez and try to limit the damage.”
Hamilton started second and finished runner-up at the same venue seven days ago. Verstappen took the chequered flag 35 seconds clear.
But Hamilton warned: “It will be even more of a challenge than it was last week.
“We have tried everything to get more out of the car but we continue to lack pace. We have really got to find performance in the following races.”
When Hamilton does finally decide to hang up his helmet, the future of British motor racing is in encouraging hands.
Norris has been the pound-for-pound performer of the year. The only driver to score in all eight races, he is fourth in the standings. In the Styrian mountains, he delivered another brilliant one-lap performance for McLaren.
“I feel epic,” the 21-year-old said. “It was cool. It puts us in a good position for tomorrow. It was one of the best laps I did and it is a great feeling.”
Behind Norris, George Russell provided Mercedes boss Toto Wolff with a timely reminder of his credentials.
The Briton, in a direct shootout with Bottas to partner Hamilton in 2022, hauled his Williams into Q3 for the first time in his career and then beat Lance Stroll to finish ninth. He out-qualified both Ferraris, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo, and two-time world champion Fernando Alonso.
“I have not been this pumped up since winning a race three years ago in GP2,” said Russell, 23.
“I am buzzing but qualifying is behind us and we have to look forward to the race. Points have to be a minimum. I want to try and move forward because there is no reason we can’t do that.”
Sebastian Vettel qualified eighth, but he faces a grid penalty for blocking Alonso as the Spaniard completed his final lap. Alonso was furious with Vettel, gesticulating wildly at the four-time world champion, as he was knocked out of Q2 and forced to settle for 14th.
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