Perez in pole for Saudi Arabian GP day after nearby attack

Perez edged the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. on his final lap, pushing his own Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen — the world champion — down to fourth.

Sergio Perez of Mexico and Oracle Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Sergio Perez took his first career pole position at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as Formula One continued amid heavy scrutiny on Saturday, the day after an attack on a nearby oil depot.

Perez edged the Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. on his final lap, pushing his own Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen — the world champion — down to fourth.

READ | Saudi Arabian GP to go ahead despite nearby attack, says FIA

All day, the focus was on why F1 went ahead with racing so close to the bombed, smoke-covered depot located about 11 kilometers (seven miles) from the track.

Sainz Jr. agreed with the decision to race, but said the matter won’t go away once F1 globe-trots away to Australia and then Europe.

“There will need to be discussions after this race,” the Spanish driver said. “Because what has happened in the last 24 hours is definitely a point of discussion.”

Lewis Hamilton is usually so outspoken on human rights and other important issues. But this time he said little about the collective decision to race — which followed hours of discussions on Friday night — other than he’s eager to get home.

“I’m not here to comment on that. Together as a group we all discussed and made a decision as a sport,” Hamilton said. “I don’t feel a particular way about it, I’m looking forward to getting out.”

The seven-time world champion Hamilton is F1′s record holder with 103 pole positions and 103 wins yet produced one of his worst ever qualifying performances in 16th.

There was a heavy crash during the second part of qualifying as Mick Schumacher mangled his Haas car spinning and sliding backward into a wall on the sinewy Jiddah circuit, bringing out a red flag.

Schumacher was flown by helicopter for checkups. Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said he could be kept overnight as a precaution and will not race.

“The best thing is that Mick has apparently no injuries. He’s in the hospital right now and being evaluated by the doctors, so he is in good hands,” Steiner said. “Based on these facts and where we are, we have decided not to field his car tomorrow.”

Most of the talk on Saturday wasn't about racing, though.

Earlier in the day, team principals were adamant it was safe to carry on driving in Jiddah, following the late night meetings with security and government officials after the nearby attack by Yemen's Houthi rebels.

“We had quite a few high-ranked authorities yesterday. They explained the situation," Aston Martin's Mike Krack said. "They explained it to us in a very credible way.”

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Williams boss Jost Capito said an independent observer offered further reassurance.

"There was also another defense person, not from here but from a different country, who looked into that independently and confirmed everything is in place,” Capito said, without revealing who it was.

Conversations between drivers, team principals and F1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali centered on safety and security conditions. All 20 drivers kept talking past 2 a.m. to discuss safety concerns.

Leclerc was reluctant to talk about it.

“We don’t really want to go into details about what we discussed there. It was more a matter of coming together as drivers. Because it was a tricky moment to say the least," he said. "We have to listen to the people who are taking care of our security here and have to trust them.”

Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto said the decision to continue was correct. But team principals also said no driver or team member would have been stopped from leaving.

In an earlier statement, F1 and FIA justified racing “following discussions with all the teams and drivers."

The Houthis acknowledged the attacks on Friday evening and Saudi Arabia state TV called it a “hostile operation.” The Jiddah oil depot erupted in flames from a missile attack during Friday’s first practice session. It caused a raging fire that rattled F1.

Hamilton and other drivers previously expressed their concerns about racing in the region, mainly concerning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

The attack targeted the North Jiddah Bulk Plant, the same fuel depot the Houthis attacked five days earlier. The plant is just southeast of the city’s international airport.

The plant stores diesel, gasoline and jet fuel for use in the kingdom’s second-largest city. It accounts for over a quarter of all of Saudi Arabia’s supplies.

A Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Yemen's capital and a strategic Red Sea city, officials said on Saturday. The overnight airstrikes on Sanaa and Hodeida — both held by the Houthis — responded to the attack in Jiddah.

The circuit is hosting an F1 race for the second time, after the inaugural race last December.

After Leclerc of Ferrari topped the third practice to make it a sweep, with Hamilton a lowly 11th in a sign of things to come, qualifying began at 8 p.m. local time under floodlights.

READ | Saudi Arabian GP: Vettel remains out due to COVID, Hulkenberg to step in again for Aston Martin

Hamilton found himself in the rare position of being eliminated from Q1, the first part of qualifying.

“The car was just undriveable, so nervous. I was constantly losing the back end of the car," said Hamilton, who said he chose the wrong set-up. “Just difficult to drive. Way, way more difficult than ever before.”

After Schumacher crashed with five minutes left in Q2, it took about one hour for the session to resume.

Leclerc looked on for a second straight pole, after winning last Sunday's season-opening Bahrain GP from there, but missed an 11th career pole by .025 seconds on a skiddy street circuit Perez called "definitely the most dangerous place on the calendar.”

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