Charles Leclerc beat Lewis Hamilton to a surprise pole position for Ferrari at the Singapore Grand Prix.
Ferrari stormed into qualifying contention after an anonymous Friday of practice that suggested the pole shootout would boil down to a straight fight between Red Bull Racing and Mercedes. But when both tipped favorites faded, Leclerc and teammate Sebastian Vettel ignited an electric fight for the front row.
Vettel was the first to strike with a scintillating first lap more than 0.3 seconds faster than Leclerc and a full second quicker than Hamilton in the highest-placed Mercedes, but the German couldn’t back it up the second time around. A slower first sector begot a mistake in Turn 18, forcing him to abandon his lap.
Behind him, Leclerc was on a flier. The Monegasque had done a better job of warming up his Pirelli tires at the second time of asking, and though he set a purple sector at only the first intermediate, it was enough to overhaul his teammate by 0.22s and record his third successive pole.
Leclerc paid tribute to his Ferrari team for working to improve the car at a circuit whose high-downforce demands weren’t expected to suit the SF90’s slippery aerodynamics.
“I’m extremely happy about today,” he beamed. “It was a good lap — a very good lap.
“We came here knowing it would be a difficult track for us, but the team has done an amazing job to bring the package we needed.
“We brought some new bits that worked properly, which was good to see — it’s not always the case, but it was this weekend.”
Hamilton also improved with his second lap, and three personal-best sectors, including a purple third sector, was enough to pip Vettel to second on the grid.
“I don’t know where Ferrari picked up their pace today, because it’s not potentially one of their tracks, but they did a great job,” mused the championship leader. “I really needed something special at the end. It was as much as I could get out of the car, and I’m very happy to be on the front row in the mix with them.”
Vettel was sanguine despite his loss of pole, though the German foreshadowed that his car is unlikely to have the same advantage over Mercedes it enjoyed during qualifying.
“It will certainly feel different tomorrow,” he said. “Let’s see what the tires will do, if we are able to push the full two hours or if we have to manage (them).”
Max Verstappen qualified fourth, more than half a second off pole in a disappointing return for Red Bull Racing at a circuit earmarked for the team’s third win of the season.
The Dutchman at least beat Valtteri Bottas, who finished 0.9 seconds behind Leclerc, while teammate Alex Albon was 0.2s further back on his first visit to the Singapore GP.
Carlos Sainz qualified at the head of the midfield in seventh, but his McLaren team didn’t have the session all its own way, with Renault duo Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg separating him from 10th-placed Lando Norris in the sister car.
Sergio Perez qualified 11th, though the Mexican will serve a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, owing to him smacking the barriers with his rear axle during Saturday practice, dropping him to 16th.
Antonio Giovinazzi qualified 12th for Alfa Romeo, the fifth time the Italian has beaten teammate Kimi Raikkonen on Saturday this season.
Raikkonen, who qualified 14th after a close shave with a barrier — he literally shaved some rendering off the face of a wall — was separated from his teammate by Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly in 13th.
Kevin Magnussen was the slowest of the session, the Dane almost a second slower than Raikkonen after barely improving on his Q1 time.
Daniil Kvyat’s 16th-place qualification — 15th on the grid as the last driver to benefit from Perez’s penalty — concluded a difficult day for the Russian. His Toro Rosso suffered an engine problem early during Saturday practice, truncating his track time and forcing a time-consuming power unit change to an older specification from his pool and therefore not incurring a penalty. But the lack of qualifying preparation and the older engine left him a way off teammate Gasly’s pace and knocked out of Q1 by just 0.015s. Lance Stroll followed for Racing point only 0.022s back, ahead of Haas’s Romain Grosjean.
Williams teammates George Russell and Robert Kubica qualified on the back row, in 19th and 20th respectively.