Max Verstappen has put himself in the perfect position to claim his second world championship on Sunday by beating Charles Leclerc to pole position at the Japanese Grand Prix.
But the Dutchman was sweating on a post-session stewards investigation into a bizarre incident with Lando Norris during the top-10 shootout.
Verstappen was preparing for his first flying lap off-line at the rapid 130R when Norris, who was on a much faster out-lap, closed behind him.
As Norris approached, Verstappen attempted to join the racing line but lit up his rear tires, sending him sliding into the McLaren’s path. Norris had to take avoiding action over the grass to prevent a monster crash, ruining preparation for his flying lap.
But it wasn’t enough to put Verstappen off. His first flying lap, a 1m29.304s, proved quick enough to take pole position when the Dutchman failed to improve with his second attempt after his car shed some bodywork while riding the curbs.
“I’m very happy to be on pole but also in general just super happy to be here,” Verstappen said. “I’m quite confident we have a good car. I’m excited for tomorrow.”
Leclerc improved his second lap by 0.243s but fell an agonizing 0.01s short of Verstappen, though he remained optimistic that the lack of practice time this weekend could work in his favor for the race.
“Very limited data going into the race, so that’s always a challenge,” he said. “But the feeling is good in the car.
“It seems that it’s going to have a bit of rain somewhere in the race. It should be a fun race.”
Carlos Sainz was just 0.057s off pole and lamented that he always seemed to be on the wrong end of close qualifying battles among the top three.
“It’s a shame to be half a tenth again from pole,” he said. “It’s been so many quails now with Max and Charles where we’re all within half a tenth.
“Hopefully towards the end of this season the half a tenth falls more on my side and we can get a pole position.”
Sergio Perez was 0.4s off the pace off his teammate but a similar margin ahead of Esteban Ocon, who put Alpine at the head of the midfield.
Lewis Hamilton was the lead Mercedes is sixth but was a second off the pace, and the Briton only just pipped Fernando Alonso to the position, with George Russell close behind in eighth.
Sebastian Vettel was an emotional ninth in his final qualifying session in Japan, where he’s won four times and claimed the 2022 championship.
The German was substantially quicker than teammate Lance Stroll, who qualified in 19th, and was sentimental on team radio after completing his sole Q3 lap.
“OK boys, good session,” he said. “I really enjoyed it. This track is so much better than all the other ones.
“Arigatō gozaimasu, Suzuka. Thank you. I will miss this place, but we have tomorrow to score some points.”
Lando Norris wasn’t able to improve with his second lap and qualified 10th ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who was knocked out 11th by 0.003s, The 2019 Japanese Grand Prix winner, Valtteri Bottas, followed in 12th.
Local favorite Yuki Tsunoda was a commendable 13th despite brake problems hampering his session. He also appeared to be blocked by a weaving Mick Schumacher down the back straight.
Zhou Guanyu will start 14th on the grid ahead of Schumacher, who bounced back admirably from his FP1 crash and chassis change on Friday.
Alex Albon pipped Pierre Gasly for 17th by 0.091s to start 17th. The Frenchman was furious over team radio about a problem with his brakes; Tsunoda also complained about similar issues earlier in qualifying.
Kevin Magnussen was 18th for Haas ahead of Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi at the rear of the grid.