By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) -Valtteri Bottas put in a ‘mega lap’ to beat Mercedes Formula One team mate Lewis Hamilton and qualify fastest on Friday for Saturday’s experimental Italian Grand Prix sprint race.
The Finn, whose departure from the team at the end of the season was announced this week, did a one minute 19.555 second lap with seven times world champion Hamilton 0.096 slower and championship leader Max Verstappen third for Red Bull.
“Oh yes. Boom! Thanks,” Bottas said over the team radio after the lap catapulted him from fifth to first at the fastest circuit on the calendar.
He will start from the back of the grid on Sunday after a strategic power unit change triggered a penalty for exceeding the allocation of three for the season, but can still score on Saturday.
Three points go to the sprint winner, who will take pole position for Sunday’s main event. Two go to the second-placed driver and one for the third with any grid penalties not applied until afterwards.
“That qualifying lap was nice,” said Bottas, who will be moving to Alfa Romeo to replace retiring compatriot Kimi Raikkonen.
“It feels so good when you get a nice lap. I managed to save it to the end and had a bit of a (aerodynamic) tow as well so it was good fun. I enjoyed it.
“I feel good, I feel relaxed and everything is sorted for the future. Really pleased with the team today, the car has been so good,” he added.
Hamilton is three points behind Verstappen after 13 races and is set to cut the gap to the Dutchman in Saturday’s 100km dash.
“Congratulations to Valtteri, he did a mega lap,” said Hamilton. “It was looking good for us until the end but then he went quicker, and I just couldn’t match it.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff indicated that Bottas would be told to swap places with Hamilton on Saturday if running one-two and comfortably clear of Verstappen.
“Presumably, yes,” the Austrian told Sky Sports television.
“It’s difficult generally when you have to call team orders because all of us as racers we don’t want to see that… but Valtteri’s going all the way to the back on Sunday.”
The hour-long qualifying at the ‘Temple of Speed’ outside Milan replaced Friday’s usual second practice, with the sprint format being trialled for the second time after a debut at Silverstone in July.
Verstappen was 0.411 slower than Bottas and Mercedes seem to have the edge again at a circuit where they have won five times in the last seven years.
“I think for us around this track it’s always going to be difficult,” said Verstappen. “We struggled a little more than we wanted in the free practice but I think we recovered quite well throughout this qualifying.
“For the race hopefully we can be a bit closer.”
McLaren’s Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo will line up fourth and fifth with AlphaTauri’s 2020 winner Pierre Gasly sixth and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc seventh and eighth.
Red Bull’s Mexican Sergio Perez qualified ninth, but gave Verstappen a vital tow to his own cost. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, whose place for 2022 looks uncertain, completed the top 10.
The session saw cars backing each other up and there was a near-miss in the pitlane when Hamilton and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel almost collided.
Aston Martin and Alpine mechanics were fortunate not to have been hit and both teams were fined 5,000 euros ($5,906.50).
Stewards said Aston had released their cars at the same time, with Vettel moving aside and forcing Hamilton to take avoiding action.
The Alpine mechanic responsible for releasing Esteban Ocon also put himself in a dangerous situation, they added.
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(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris and Christian Radnedge)