Charles Leclerc pipped Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz to pole position at the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, but a 10-place grid drop for the second-placed Spaniard will promote Max Verstappen to the front row.
Ferrari has been in fabulous form in Las Vegas, with only a red-flagged FP3 preventing the team from sweeping every session of the weekend.
Leclerc, the more potent of the two, topped all three qualifying segments. Sainz followed him closely in Q3, but the 0.44s advantage was indicative of the slender but decisive advantage the Monegasque held around the brand-new Las Vegas Strip Circuit, ensuring he captured his 23rd pole position.
“The first in Las Vegas – obviously it’s an incredible event, and to be starting from pole tomorrow is great,” he said. “Nor full focus on tomorrow to try to put everything together in the race.”
He won’t have the support of Sainz in that fight, however, with his teammate paying the price for striking a loose water valve cover during first practice on Thursday evening that destroyed his chassis and parts of his power unit.
Sainz’s car required a new battery beyond his season’s allocation, and despite the bizarre nature of the incident, the stewards said there was no facility in the rules to allow it to slide, forcing him into a 10-place penalty that will see him start 12th.
Despite the strong qualifying result, Sainz said he was still fuming over the situation.
“Obviously I’m still disappointed about yesterday, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I’m still in a bad mood. I’m trying not to show it too much.”
He said he was optimistic for a fightback in the race but tempered expectations for a podium.
“It depends obviously on how the start goes and how the graining on the tires is and how easy it is to overtake … but I think it’s going to be tricky.”
Red Bull’s soft touch with the tires meant it hasn’t had its usual edge in the cool and slick conditions, but Verstappen said he was optimistic the race would still come to the RB19 to give him a chance at victory from a promoted second on the grid.
“I think we maximised today,” he said. “I think really the whole weekend so far we’ve been lacking a little bit of one-lap performance.
“I hope of course tomorrow in the race we’re good on the tires again and we can work our way forward.”
George Russell and Pierre Gasly qualified fourth and fifth but will share the second row after penalties.
That in turn promotes Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant to the third row for Williams’s first double top-10 start since the Dutch Grand Prix.
It was the best qualifying result of American rookie Logan Sargeant’s career, easily bettering his 10th place in Zandvoort.
Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen will line up seventh and eighth on the grid ahead of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, the Briton promoted from his surprise 11th-place Q2 knockout into the top 10 by Sainz’s penalty.
Sergio Perez is stuck in 12th, with he and Red Bull appeared to make a major tactical blunder by boxing with three minutes remaining in Q2 and only 0.4s to the knockout zone from his then position in sixth place.
Perez, who can secure second in the drivers championship this weekend so long as Hamilton doesn’t outscore him by eight points or more, watched helplessly as he slid five places down the order to 12th.
Nico Hulkenberg was knocked out 13th ahead of Lance Stroll, but the Canadian will start no higher than 18th after copping a five-place grid penalty for passing under double waved yellows at the end of third practice. He is also under a post-session investigation for failing to slow under single yellows during Q1.
Daniel Ricciardo qualified 15th but will rise to 14th after penalties, having beat former teammate Lando Norris for a spot in Q2.
Norris led McLaren’s shock disappointment with 16th in Q1, missing out on progression by just 0.02s. It was the second time the Briton has been knocked out in Q1 in the last three grands prix, having also missed out on the top 15 in Mexico City.
Teammate Oscar Piastri fared worse, knocked out in 19th to form McLaren’s first double Q1 elimination since the Miami Grand Prix in May.
Piastri said the car was quicker than it looked, putting the poor performance down to neither he nor Norris using a second set of soft tires despite the risk of elimination.
Esteban Ocon and Zhou Guanyu slotted between the papaya teammates, claiming 17th and 18th, but the former was fuming after a multicar tangle at the end of the Sprint at the end of his final preparation lap.
Both he and Verstappen subsequently tripped over one another into the first turn. The Dutchman attempted to dive down the Frenchman’s inside but ended up off the track, momentarily holding up Ocon, who missed Q2 by 0.151s.
Yuki Tsunoda qualified last after failing to set a representative lap, spoiling his final tour by running off the road at Turn 5, the furious Japanese driver ejected his headrest out of the garage after returning to pit lane.