Formula One’s early season pacesetter Charles Leclerc survived intense pressure on Saturday to beat world champion Max Verstappen, who suffered a late loss of power, to pole position for Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix.
The Ferrari driver had spun his car on his opening run in the third part of qualifying, but responded with a fast, nerveless and improved lap to regain top spot ahead of the Dutchman who was unable to respond.
It brought Leclerc his first pole position in Spain, his fourth of the season and the 13th of his career.
“I only had that one lap, but it went extremely well,” said the 24-year-old Monegasque.
Verstappen qualified second ahead of local hero Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari and a resurgent George Russell for Mercedes, Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton in the second Mercedes.
“I feel very good,” said Leclerc.
“It was a very, very difficult session, especially in Q3, when I made a mistake on the first run so I only had one lap.”
Verstappen said: “I couldn’t do my final run. Either the DRS (Drag Reduction System) didn’t open or I lost power. It’s a bit of a shame, but overall to be on the front row here, looking at the whole weekend, it was a good achievement.”
Red Bull confirmed it was the DRS system that had failed.
Sainz, cheered by the big sellout crowd, said: “It’s been a tough weekend so far. The conditions have not been easy with the heat and wind, but we managed a decent lap.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified seventh, ahead of Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren and Mick Schumacher in the second Haas.
On a hot, dry afternoon in Catalonia, Guanyu Zhou was the first man on track in Q1 in which Perez and Verstappen both topped the times before the Ferraris took over and the Mercedes men slotted in fourth and fifth.
Schumacher took part after a great effort by his Haas team to repair his car following the brakes blaze that stopped him in third practice.
He repaid them with a lap that lifted him briefly to ninth and beyond danger while, to the crowd’s dismay, Fernando Alonso was one of two former world champions dumped out in Q1.
Show of confidence
The veteran Spaniard, now 40, was 17th in his Alpine and joined both Aston Martin drivers Lance Stroll and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, 18th and 16th respectively, in being eliminated along with the two Williams of Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi.
It was the first time Alonso had failed to escape Q1 at his home event.
For those alleging that Aston Martin’s ‘copy-cat’ upgrades package owed much to a possible use of Red Bull data there were raised eyebrows.
Q2 began quietly until Russell led the Mercedes out, the younger driver outpacing the seven-time champion by three-tenths, Hamilton sliding wide as he exited the chicane.
Hamilton was clearly finding it difficult to hustle his improved, but still twitchy car while Russell was able to drive with smooth precision as he clocked 1:19.470 to top the opening runs.
As the second runs began, both Mercedes stayed in the pits – where 20-time Grand Slam tennis legend Roger Federer was a guest – a show of confidence unthinkable at any of the previous five events this year.
Leclerc also saved his tyres.
That left the way clear for Verstappen to top Sainz while McLaren’s Lando Norris had his lap deleted, for exceeding track limits by millimetres, and missed the top-ten cut along with Esteban Ocon of Alpine, Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and Zhou.
This meant that Schumacher joined team-mate Magnussen in proceeding to the top-ten shootout, at a track where his father Michael, a seven-time champion, won a record six times.
Hamilton, who shared that record of six Spanish wins, was soon out to set an early marker in Q3 of 1:19.664. Sainz beat it on his first run when Leclerc spun at Turn 15 before Verstappen went top in 1:19.073, three-tenths ahead before the final showdown.
Leclerc was first out to take control in 1:18.750, while Verstappen went last at the back of the ‘train’ to set up a dramatic finale – decided when the Dutchman lost power and was called back to the pits.