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Red Bull Racing's Mexican driver Sergio Perez competes during the qualifying session of the Saudi Arabia Formula One Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Jeddah. Image Credit: AFP

Jeddah: Sergio Perez stepped up for Red Bull to ensure the team started from the pole at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after a mechanical issue sidelined two-time defending world champion Max Verstappen.

Verstappen was fastest in all three practice sessions at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit but his qualifying effort was cut short Saturday when he radioed “I have a problem. Engine, engine problem,” during the second session. The Dutchman drove to the pits, where a driveshaft issue was discovered, and Verstappen’s qualifying effort was over.

It left Perez as the lone Red Bull representative in the final round of qualifying and he went on to win pole for the second consecutive year — the only two poles of his career.

“Max has been really strong the whole weekend, so hopefully we can have both cars up there,” Perez said. “You never know with these cars, reliability issues can hit you at any time.”

Verstappen will start 15th.

“The driveshaft broke ... It was annoying because the car was good up until then, I was comfortable in every session and every time I was on the track, I was quick, so for sure we could have fought for pole,” Verstappen said. “Instead, we now have a bit more work ahead of us. It is a long championship and we will stay positive. I think a win is tricky from that position, but I will try to score as many points as possible.”

Leclerc second

Charles Leclerc qualified second for Ferrari but will drop 10 positions at the start of Sunday’s race because of a grid penalty for exceeding the allotted electronics control unit on the car’s engine in the season-opening race.

Leclerc said even without the penalty he wasn’t all that impressed with his qualifying effort because the entire grid is chasing Red Bull. Verstappen last year won a record 15 races, Perez added two victories and Red Bull claimed both the driver and constructors championships.

“The lap — I’m really, really happy. It was really on the limit,” Leclerc said. “On the other hand, I feel the Red Bull are quite far ahead and that is our goal, to beat them, so there is still a lot of work to do.”

The penalty to Leclerc pushes Fernando Alonso to the front row for the start after the Spaniard qualified third in his new Aston Martin ride. Alonso finished third in his season-opening debut race with Aston in Bahrain.