Red Bull’s Max Verstappen inched closer to his second-straight Formula One world championship on Saturday, qualifying in the pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix by just .010 seconds ahead of his biggest competition for the championship, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Leclerc’s teammate Carlos Sainz qualified in third position, while Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez, the winner of last week’s Singapore Grand Prix, placed fourth. Esteban Ocon of Alpine rounded out the top five.
Verstappen was the top driver during the first of the three qualifying segments, posting a best lap of 1:30.244 in the opening segment while running on soft tires. Sainz and Leclerc finished the first segment in second and third position. The Mercedes duo of George Russell and Lewis Hamilton — running medium tires early in the segment — switched to soft tires late in the first segment to earn spots in the second of the three qualifying session.
In that second session, the elements played a role as the sun broke through the clouds at Suzaka. Drivers such as Sainz believed that the appearance of the sun could lead to a slower track, and that was indeed the case. Times at the start of the second segment were lower than the times in the first segment, as Verstappen’s early run in Q2 of 1:30.346 was good for first, but slower than his Q1 time.
Then, the clouds reappeared, and the times began to heat up. It was Perez who finished with the best time during the second segment, posting a lap of 1:29.925. He was followed by Fernando Alonso of Alpine, Verstappen, Ocon and Hamilton.
McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo — whose status for the upcoming season remains in doubt — missed out on Q3 in heartbreaking fashion, as he placed 11th in Q3 by just 0.003 seconds.
In the third segment, Verstappen worked his way to the top of the field, but that was not without incident. Verstappen slowed while working through the legendary 130R turn, he came across McLaren’s Lando Norris, who was getting up to speed on his push lap, Verstappen swerved to avoid a collision while Norris dipped into the grass to avoid contact with the Red Bull driver:
Race officials announced the incident would be investigated at the close of qualifying. While officials found that Verstappen did breach article 33.4 of F1’s regulations, which state that: “At no time may a car be driven unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner which could be deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person,” they also held that a reprimand was in order, rather than other penalties, as that was how such incidents were handled in the past: “Regarding penalty, all previous breaches of this nature have resulted in a reprimand, hence a similar penalty is imposed in this case.”
Here is how the entire field sets up for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix:
This from F1’s social media account lets you ride along during Verstappen’s pole-clinching effor
(As an aside, for those looking to get into F1, simply following the F1 Twitter account is a great place to start, as it is updated constantly with content like this.)
Qualifying on the pole puts Verstappen ever closer to his second-straight world title. Should he win the event, posting the fastest lap along the way, then he can clinch the championship outright. For other scenarios where Verstappen can clinch the championship, including without a win in Suzaka, you can find them here.