The Red Bull Racing driver has clean swept the weekend to date, topping all three practice sessions on his way to a comfortable pole position by a 0.4-second margin over his Mercedes rival in yesterday’s (Mar 27) qualifiying session.
It’s the first time a non-Mercedes driver has taken pole at the first race of a season since Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull Racing days at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix.
The RB16B has looked the class of the field since preseason testing, and Verstappen could barely contain his grin post-qualifying.
“The whole week so far I think the car has been working really well and has just been really enjoyable to drive,” he said. “I think in general the car has been working really well in short and long runs. I’m just looking forward to [the race].”
The vanquished Hamilton was accepting of defeat, the Briton noting how much progress his Mercedes team has made since looking woefully unsettled during preseason testing to come within striking distance of pole this weekend.
“Congratulations to Max, he did just a great job - so fast on the last lap,” he said. “I absolutely gave it everything I had, but unfortunately it wasn’t good enough.
“I think we did a really good job from testing to come here - everyone at the factory have really done such a fantastic job.”
His teammate, Valtteri Bottas, fared less well in qualifying, the Finn more than half a second off the pace after struggling with the delicately balanced Mercedes car all weekend.
“The practice this morning wasn’t quite easy,” he said. “I had a lot of issues with the balance of the car and didn’t really feel that comfortable.
“[Qualifying] wasn’t too bad, but obviously not where we wanted to be.”
Forecasts based on practice pace suggest the two leading teams are closely matched on race pace, but polesitter Verstappen is at the potential disadvantage of lacking teammate Sergio Perez as a strategic weapon after the Mexican found himself eliminated a lowly 11th.
Instead Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc will slot into fourth on the grid ahead of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly.
Daniel Ricciardo outqualified McLaren teammate Lando Norris in his first appearance for the team, though the two were closely matched at 0.9s off the pace.
Carlos Sainz was eighth in the second Ferrari ahead of Fernando Alonso, the two-time champion returning from a two-year sabbatical to race with Alpine, formerly Renault.
Lance Stroll qualified 10th for Aston Martin, the Canadian 1.6s off the pace.
Perez’s disappointing 11th in his first weekend as a Red Bull Racing driver resulted from his commitment to the slower medium tire for his laps in Q2, a strategy that would allowed him to use the more durable compound for the start of the race had he qualified in the top 10 - but he couldn’t extract representative pace from it on either of his flying laps.
Antonio Giovinazzi qualified 12th for Alfa Romeo ahead of AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda, the Japanese also sticking with the medium tire in a strategy gamble that didn’t pay off.
Kimi Raikkonen qualified 14th in the second Alfa Romeo ahead of Williams driver George Russell.
Esteban Ocon qualified 16th for Alpine, formerly Renault, after being forced to slow for yellow flags on his last flying lap - Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin had spun around at turn one and Sainz’s Ferrari suffered engine gremlins later in the lap.
Sebastian Vettel, donning Aston Martin’s British racing green for the first time, was similarly affected on his way to a bitterly disappointed 18th.
Between them slotted Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, while Haas drivers Mick Schumacher - son of seven-time champion Michael Schumacher - and Mazepin qualified 19th and 20th respectively.