Lewis Hamilton leaves Max Verstappen in his wake as he takes pole position amid F1 cheating claims at Qatar Grand Prix

LEWIS HAMILTON’S title defence is alive and kicking after the seven-time champion put his Mercedes on pole for the Qatar Grand Prix.

The Brit produced a flier to go fastest under the lights as F1 visited the Losail International Circuit for the first time ever.

And Sunday’s race promises to be a thriller after championship leader Max Verstappen made it onto the front row alongside his title rival.

There is plenty of reason for Red Bull fans to be nervous though after their man was almost half a second slower than the flying leader.

Hamilton said after jumping out of his car: “That last lap was beautiful. It was a really sweet lap. This track is amazing to drive. Woo, it felt good!”

Verstappen was less enthusiastic as he said: "I think we're just lacking a bit of pace, it's just been a bit more tricky for us.

"Checo (Perez) is not even in Q3, so it shows that we are struggling a bit more than normal."

Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was third-fastest, while Pierre Gasly was a surprise package as he put his AlphaTauri fourth.

Verstappen leads Hamilton by just 14 points in the driver standings as the F1 season heads for its gripping conclusion.

The Dutchman saw his championship lead cut as arch rival Hamilton snatched a sensational victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix last weekend.

The Mercedes superstar recovered from a penalty to spring to victory from 10th on the grid at the storied Interlagos circuit.

And there is bad blood because of it going into Sunday’s Qatar race after the two clashed in Sao Paulo. 

Merc were left fuming after Verstappen appeared to force their driver off the road as he hunted an overtake on lap 48.

The stewards saw nothing wrong and refused to dish out any penalties over the incident at the time.

And this week Merc saw an appeal against that decision booted out by unimpressed F1 officials in Qatar.

Red Bull have in turn threatened to lodge their own complaint – this time questioning the legality of the lightning-quick Mercedes car.

Team boss Christian Horner refused to mince his words ahead of this weekend’s crucial race.

He declared: “The straight line performance in the last two Grands Prix has gone exponential and that concerns us.

“Make no bones about it, if we see it on the car here it will be protested. If we believe the Mercedes car is not in compliance, we will protest.”

It is all adding up to a tense finale as the F1 season enters its final Middle Eastern swing.

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