Formula One world champion Max Verstappen took his first pole position of the season on Friday in a wet and crash-interrupted Emilia Romagna Grand Prix qualifying for Saturday’s sprint race at Imola.
Ferrari’s championship leader Charles Leclerc, thwarted by a late stoppage, will line up alongside the Red Bull driver on the front row for a 100km race that decides who starts first in Sunday’s main event.
Verstappen goes into the Formula One record books as the pole setter for the weekend, regardless of where he starts on Sunday. Last year the winner of the sprint was awarded pole instead.
“It was hectic but I am very happy to be here, it is an amazing track and it also really punishes you if you make a mistake, you can go into the wall,” said Verstappen, who has suffered two retirements in three races.
“I am really pleased with pole position but I know tomorrow and Sunday will be a bit different in terms of weather conditions.”
The winner of the sprint will take eight points instead of the three previously available.
Leclerc has a 34-point lead over Mercedes’ George Russell after winning twice, finishing second in the other and taking all three bonus points available for fastest laps.
“There’s everything to play for tomorrow and after tomorrow and we’ll give everything,” he said.
Each of Friday’s three qualifying phases had to be halted after incidents, with the red flags brought out five times in total and the entire session ending 40 minutes later than scheduled.
The pole contenders ultimately splashed around on intermediate tyres and in plumes of spray.
The final stoppage, triggered by McLaren’s Lando Norris becoming stuck in the gravel, brought an end to the proceedings with 38 seconds remaining and the Briton qualifying a strong third.
“These conditions made a big difference for us today because if it was completely dry, we wouldn’t be in third place,” said Norris.
Kevin Magnussen was fourth for Haas, a position the delighted Dane said was ‘crazy’, ahead of Alpine’s Fernando Alonso and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez qualified seventh and Valtteri Bottas eighth for Alfa Romeo. Sebastian Vettel starts ninth for Aston Martin.
Verstappen’s best time of one minute and 27.999 seconds was 0.779 quicker than Leclerc’s quickest, although the final session was interrupted three times.
“Max managed to take the lap at a critical moment,” commented Red Bull boss Christian Horner. “Obviously now the challenge will be what will the weather do tomorrow.”
Carlos Sainz had already spun and smashed his Ferrari into the tyre barrier in the second stint, bringing out red flags and sending the Spaniard back to the paddock on a scooter. He qualified 10th.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton had scraped into that phase by the skin of his teeth, the seven-times world champion only 15th and just 0.004 of a second quicker than AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda on a drying track.
Russell also ran dangerously close to missing the early cut and both then failed to make the final top 10, the first time that had happened to the team since 2012.
“I think we underperformed as a team today,” said Hamilton.
Leclerc had been fastest in Q1, before the rain came, and ahead of Verstappen and Sainz. The Monegasque had also set the pace in practice.
Alex Albon failed to set a time after the right rear brake of his Williams caught fire with the tyre then exploding, scattering flaming debris on the track and bringing out red flags.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon qualified 19th after a suspected gearbox problem.