World champion Max Verstappen secured pole position on Friday for Saturday’s sprint race at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix after outpacing Charles Leclerc by 1.2 seconds in a rain-hit qualifying.
The 24-year-old Dutchman drove his Red Bull with care and aplomb to avoid problems on a day of frequent crashes and five red flags that left Ferrari’s championship leader frustrated.
It was Verstappen’s first pole this season and the 12th of his career.
The 100km sprint race will set the grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Lando Norris was third for McLaren ahead of Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Fernando Alonso of Alpine and Daniel Ricciardo, who was sixth in the second McLaren.
“It was tricky out there with the rain – very slippery and difficult to get the tyre temperatures to work here,” said Verstappen.
“It’s an amazing track which punishes you, so I’m pleased with pole and it is a good start to the weekend.”
However, both seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and George Russell failed to make the cut to the top-ten shootout as their Mercedes team failed to progress for the first time in a decade.
Sergio Perez was seventh in the second Red Bull ahead of Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Aston Martin.
The opening session began with drama when, shortly after Lance Stroll set the pace in 1:23.419 on dry slick tyres, Alexander Albon’s right-rear brake caught fire, flames flicking in the air to prompt a red-flag interruption before the brake exploded.
Debris flew across the circuit as the London-born Thai driver steered his Williams to safety, followed by a six-minute stoppage.
On resumption, with everyone moving to softs, Vettel and then Stroll went fastest for Aston Martin before the times tumbled in improving, drying conditions.
Leclerc emerged half a second clear of Verstappen with Sainz third while Hamilton, his car “porpoising” severely, scraped through in 15th, just 0.004 seconds quicker than Yuki Tsunoda, who was eliminated.
Out with him went his Alpha Tauri team-mate Pierre Gasly, both Williams drivers Nicholas Latifi and Albon and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon.
“So, on timed lap before the rain hits,” Ferrari told Leclerc on team radio as the second session began with dark clouds looming.
Sainz responded, going top, but Verstappen went faster before the Spaniard crashed to bring another red flag.
When the green light flashed, few ventured out in the wet conditions with little prospect of improved lap times — a situation that meant champions Mercedes had no cars in the third qualifying run for the first time since the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix.
Out with Russell and Hamilton went Mick Schumacher of Haas, Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo and Stroll.
The third qualifying session started with nine cars out quickly -– Sainz was unable to take part -– in tricky conditions.
Verstappen slithered off and recovered at Turn Two before Kevin Magnussen crashed his Haas at Acque Minerale.
On the resumption, Alonso slid wide, Perez wobbled and Bottas ran off, but the usual suspects had clean laps, Verstappen going top, ahead of Leclerc, by 0.079 before another red flag when Bottas abandoned his car on the descent to Rivazza with barely three minutes remaining.
His was not the last red flag, however, as in the finale to the day’s action Norris slipped off into a wall to trigger the final red flag of the day.