Charles Leclerc led Carlos Sainz to a surprising Ferrari one-two in qualifying for the Mexico City Grand Prix.
The Scuderia’s pace came out of nowhere as Leclerc pipped Sainz by 0.067 seconds while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was 0.097secs off the lead in third.
Daniel Ricciardo added to the unexpected feel of the grid with a superb fourth place for Alpha Tauri.
Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were sixth and eight for Mercedes.
Home hero Sergio Perez could manage only fifth in the second Red Bull, 0.160secs behind team-mate Verstappen, while the surprise of qualifying was Lando Norris’ McLaren down in 19th place.
The Briton failed to put a single lap together in a messy first session and paid the price, while team-mate Oscar Piastri was seventh in the sister car.
Alfa Romeo drivers Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu completed the top 10.
The stewards investigated a series of incidents after qualifying but Verstappen, Russell and Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso, who qualified 13th, were all cleared of impeding at the end of the pit lane.
Hamilton was deemed to have slowed sufficiently for yellow flags waved for an Alonso spin at Turn Three in the first session.
But Williams driver Logan Sargeant was given a 10-place grid penalty and two penalty points for the same offence as he passed Yuki Tsunoda’s Alpha Tauri under yellow flags. The punishment was academic as the American had qualified last having failed to set a time.
Sargeant’s team-mate Alex Albon also received a penalty, in his case during the session.
Having made it through into the final part of qualifying in ninth place, the Williams driver had his lap time deleted for exceeding track limits, by cutting the inside kerb at Turn Two and he will start 14th.
Ferrari get it right when it matters
Ferrari had looked to be struggling through the practice sessions but an impressive run in the first session of qualifying, when Leclerc lapped within 0.4secs of Verstappen’s fastest lap despite using medium tyres while the Red Bull was on the softs hinted at their potential.
Despite that, Leclerc was only sixth fastest in the second part of qualifying, but had saved his best for the final session.
The Ferrari drivers went out after the Red Bulls for the first laps, and first Sainz beat Verstappen’s initial time before Leclerc pipped his team-mate.
It was all set up for a dramatic climax, but none of the top three could improve their times on their final run and Leclerc’s fourth grand prix pole of the season and his second in a row was in the bag.
Leclerc said: “We did not expect to be on pole. We were struggling in final practice again but for some reason when we put the new tyres on everything came together.
“But I am not even thinking about pole. I am already thinking about the race. We have had enough poles and we need to do better in the races.”
He also referenced one of the quirks of Mexico – that the long run from the start to the first corner at more than 800m can often make the cars on the front row vulnerable to being passed with the slipstream.
“First place here… I’m not sure it is the best starting place but I will take pole position,” Leclerc said.
Can Ferrari pull off a win?
In any normal season, starting a grand prix with a front-row lock-out would be seen as a great opportunity to win the race.
But Verstappen and Red Bull have moved the goalposts this season, and both Leclerc and Sainz admitted that holding back the Dutchman with his car’s superior race pace and better tyre wear would be extremely difficult.
Their first problem is at the start – two years ago, Verstappen also started third, that time behind the two Mercedes, and he passed both before the first corner.
Leclerc said: “We’ve been good on starts since the beginning of the season so I am not too concerned for that. Then of course there’s the game of the slipstream on the way to the first corner and we’ll try to use that in our advantage.
“We haven’t discussed the start yet and we will, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen.
“It’s basically a result of how good a start one will have. And then we’ll adapt. I think, obviously, we won’t take too many risks in between cars. But apart from that, it’s difficult to plan what’s happening at the start. It depends if I have a good start, if I have a bad start.”
For his part, Verstappen said he had “good” confidence for the race.
A mess-up at McLaren
It was in the chaos of Alonso’s spin that Norris’ hopes were finally ended, although he had only himself to blame.
First, McLaren sent him and team-mate Piastri out on medium tyres for their first runs, but while Piastri set a time, Norris chose to abort his run without doing so.
On his second run, now on the soft tyres, Norris made a mistake in the Esses, having a huge slide at Turn Eight and ruining his lap.
He then got caught in the messy end to the session, when Alonso spun his Aston Martin at Turn Three, bringing out the yellow flag and preventing several drivers from improving.
“I got told to box (pit) for some reason, [but] the pace was good,” Norris said. “Something obviously wasn’t right, but that wasn’t a problem.
“We turned around and went straight back out. We will speak about it after, but I had one lap and I didn’t do it. So it is on me.
“I just made some mistakes on my one lap that I had. Obviously there was a yellow in the end from Fernando.
“So yeah, that one opportunity, that one lap that I was given, I didn’t put it together. It went off and that was it.”
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