Charles Leclerc, the pacesetter at the start of the season, survived the 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 had his car spinning on his first run in the third part of qualifying, but responded with a fast, nerveless and improved lap to regain the top spot for the Dutchman who was unable to react. 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 Monegask.
Verstappen qualified second ahead of local hero Carlos Sainz in the other Ferrari and a resurgent George Russell ahead of 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 last 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 in the front row here, looking at the all weekend, it was a good performance.”
Red Bull confirmed it was the DRS system that had failed.
Sainz, cheered by the large sold-out crowd, said: “It’s been a tough weekend so far. Conditions weren’t easy with the heat and wind, but we put in a decent lap.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified seventh, ahead of Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mick Schumacher in Haas’ second.
On a hot, dry afternoon in Catalonia, Guanyu Zhou was the first man on track in Q1 with Perez and Verstappen both setting fastest times before the Ferraris took over and the Mercedes men finished fourth and fifth.
Schumacher took part after a major effort by his Haas team to fix his car after the brake fire that stopped him in third practice.
He repaid them with a lap that briefly moved him to ninth and out of danger, while Fernando Alonso, to the dismay of the crowd, was one of two former world champions to be dumped in Q1.
Show of confidence
The veteran Spaniard, now 40, finished 17th in his Alpine, joining both Aston Martin drivers Lance Stroll and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel, 18th and 16th respectively, to be eliminated along with the two Williams of Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi .
It was the first time Alonso failed to escape during his Q1 home event.
For those who argued that Aston Martin’s ‘copy-cat’ upgrade package owed a lot to a possible use of Red Bull data, eyebrows were raised.
Q2 started quietly until Russell led the Mercedes out, the younger driver to outrank the seven-time champion by three tenths, Hamilton slipped wide as he exited the chicane.
Hamilton clearly found it difficult to propel his improved, but still jittery car, while Russell was able to drive with smooth precision while clocking 1:19.470 to top the opening runs.
As the second runs began, both Mercedes remained in the pits – which hosted 20-time Grand Slam tennis legend Roger Federer – a vote of confidence unimaginable at the previous five events this year.
Leclerc also saved his tires.
That cleared the way for Verstappen to beat Sainz, while his lap was scrapped from McLaren’s Lando Norris for breaking the track limits by millimeters, and missed the top ten, along with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and Zhou.
This meant Schumacher joined team-mate Magnussen to advance to the top ten shootout, at a track where his seven-time champion father Michael, a record six times, won.
Hamilton, who shared that record of six Spanish wins, would soon set an early marker in Q3 of 1:19.664. Sainz beat it on his first run as Leclerc spun in Turn 15 before Verstappen took the top in 1:19.073, three tenths ahead of the final showdown.
Leclerc was the first to take control in 1:18.750, while Verstappen was last in the back of the ‘train’ to set up a dramatic final – decided when the Dutchman lost power and was recalled to the pits.
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