Red Bull's Max Verstappen set a searing pace to claim pole position for Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya with a lap of 1:12.272s, in a qualifying session disrupted by an early rain shower.
The big cheers from the local fans in the crowd were for Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, who will start the race from second ahead of Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly - although the Alpine driver is subject to two stewards investigations for blocking incidents.
There were some surprise early eliminations with Charles Leclerc missing the first cut leaving him P19 on the grid after suffering handling problems, and Sergio Perez and George Russell both unable to make the top ten.
Coming into qualifying, the unsurprising favourite to take pole position for the Spanish Grand prix was unquestionably Red Bull's Max Verstappen, fresh off his back-to-back wins in Miami and Monaco. He'd also had a clean sweep in this weekend's practice sessions, even this morning's FP3 which had been largely a wash-out. The rain had lost interest since then and wandered off, leaving just a few spots of water in the air and a few damp areas here and there at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. Even so, there was enough threat left in the skies to make teams wary of being ambushed by another shower at some point during the qualifying. That point wasn't long in coming, it turned out.
Q1: Hamilton and Norris top, Leclerc eliminated in rain-scrambled first round
Despite some spitting rain, there was no question of which tyre all the teams had selected to start their campaign on - the soft slick compound. AlphaTauri's Yuki Tsunoda showed that this was hardly a safe option as he half spun on a recalcitrant wet spot at turn 11 and briefly took to the gravel. "Rain is on the way I think," confirmed Russell as he too hit a damp patch and wrestled the Mercedes back on course. Nor was Fernando Alonso immune to the conditions, running wide into the gravel coming through the final corner in the Aston Martin and lucky not to have a major accident as he recoverer. However the floor of the AMR23 needed some checks from the mechanics once he got back to the garage.
Instead it was Valtteri Bottas slipping off the track at turn 11 who brought out the red flag. Although the Alfa Romeo was able to get going under its own steam, there had been other mishaps around the track including Alex Albon off at turn five and Nyck de Vries also going for a spin at turn 11. The amount of gravel being kicked onto the racing line meant that race control decided the marshals needed time to get to work sweeping the track clear, as the rain briefly picked up a little.
Just seven drivers had completed a timed lap at this point, with Alpine's Pierre Gasly fastest with a time of 1:14.618s which was two tenths quicker than his team mate Esteban Ocon fallowed by Lance Stroll, Kevin Magnussen and Lewis Hamilton, together with Russell and Alonso's significantly slower compromised efforts. Nico Hulkenberg had briefly been shown as fastest but the Haas' time was deleted for exceeding track limits in the process
The rain was no longer coming down heavily but it had done enough to pool on pit lane by the time the cars came back out with 14 minutes remaining on the clock - plenty of time to get some laps in. The Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz took point, keen to get to work before any more rain arrived on the scene to further complicate matters. The delay had been of some help to Logan Sargeant, with the Williams mechanics working hard to repair his car after its final practice accident, and the FW45 was finally ready to roll out.
Verstappen duly took control of the timing screens with a lap of 1:13.660s, but McLaren's Oscar Piastri was just three hundredths of a second behind with his own effort. Sainz was fifth fastest but he had suffered a near miss with Gasly as the Alpine came out of pit lane, and the stewards noted the incident for investigation after the end of the session. Meanwhile de Vries had gone for another spin at turn 11, prompting a plaintive call over the team radio: "What am I doing wrong there?"
When he finally competed a trouble-free lap, de Vries was up to seventh place ahead of the likes of Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso, with Bottas tenth after being cleared to get back out after his previous mishap. There were problems at Mercedes - Russell's latest lap was only good enough for eighth and Lewis Hamilton was complaining about his tyres despite being third - but the man under real pressure was Leclerc who was mired in P17; as he returned to pit lane he suffered the further indignity of being summoned to the weighbridge, a loss of time he could well do without.
No one could afford to sit things out in pit lane. Verstappen had shaved a few hundredths off his time with a lap of 1:13.615s, as Lance Stroll jumped up to third just 0.151s behind. Sergio Perez was also scrambling to set a proper time having been down in P16, but the Red Bull reached safety and went fourth with his final run. Gasly recorded a time of 1:13.471s to depose Verstappen from the top, but with another possible incident of blocking (on Verstappen this time) along the way being passed to the stewards.
More improvements came in with Hamilton going top with a time of 1:12.937s ahead of Norris, Russell, Sainz and Hulkenberg. Ocon moved ahead of Gasly and de Vries, leaving Verstappen down in ninth. But by now it was clear that Leclerc really was genuinely struggling to avoid being eliminated and that there must be an issue with the Ferrari. When the final laps were in the books, the shock was evident: he was still in 19th, sandwiched between the two Williams cars, meaning an early finish to his qualifying session. "Unbelievable!" was his one-word review of the outcome, adding: "It was very far off from what I expected. I just had no grip from the rears."
In addition to Leclerc, Albon and Sargeant, the other drivers to fail to make it through were Bottas and Magnussen. Perez had only just scraped through on the bubble in 15th; but crucially, he had lived to fight another round. Could he do anything with that reprieve?
Q2: Verstappen leads Norris and Sainz as Perez and Russell miss the cut
With no more rain expected and the track having largely dried out, there was no hurry for the cars to get back out when the track went green again. But the Red Bulls were keen to get to work anyway and to avoid any traffic, Verstappen leading Perez back into action. His time was 1:12.760s, which was over eight tenths faster than his team mate and the fastest lap posted by anyone all weekend so far. Sainz was soon out on track as well, but he couldn't get within a second of Verstappen's time.
With just over ten minutes remaining, it was time for everyone else to get to work. Russell did enough to briefly go second despite problems with tyres and bouncing, but Hamilton had to back off despite setting a purple first sector. The Aston Martins of Alonso and Stroll went ahead of Russell, and Ocon then split the racing green pair for third place before Hamilton finally got in a clean lap and went second just 0.239s behind Verstappen. With the first runs of Q2 completed, the five drivers at risk of elimination were McLaren pair Norris and Piastri, AlphaTauri team mates de Vries and Tsunoda, and Hulkenberg in the remaining Haas after Magnussen's early Q1 exit.
With four minutes to go, the cars were back out on track for their final runs to progress to the final pole shoot-out round. There was early success for Hulkenberg who bounded into the top ten, but more problems for Perez who dipped a wheel onto the grass at turn 5 sending the car running off through the gravel. Everything rested on his final run, and while it was enough to put him within six tenths of Verstappen's time it still wasn't enough to make the cut.
Also frustrated and unable to get a clean run was Russell who was just 12th after clumsily making contact with his team mate at turn 1, chopping the endplate off Hamilton's front wing having not been told by the Mercedes pit wall that there was a car on the inside - let alone that it was his own team mate. That will be another incident and possible penalty (for Russell) for the stewards to debate this evening.
Fortunately Hamilton didn't need to make another run, and was safely through in fourth. Those less fortunate and joining Perez and Russell on the bench for the rest of the day were Zhou Guanyu and AlphaTauri twins de Vries and Tsunoda. Somewhat surprisingly, those through included Hulkenberg in P10 as well as both McLarens together with the two Alpines and a brace of Astons.
Q3: Verstappen clinches pole position, Sainz second ahead of Norris and Gasly
Now it was time to decide the front five rows for Sunday's race. The Aston engineers used the brief interval between rounds to continue working on the underside of Alonso's car after his Q1 foray into the gravel, and there was clearly some concern about damage to the floor that duct tape alone could not fully resolve. He stayed in pit lane as the others headed out, save for Hulkenberg who was clearly biding his time for a single run when the track was clear.
Three purple sectors heralded Verstappen's arrival on provisional pole with a time of 1:12.272s, which was almost a full second clear of Hamilton in second followed by Norris, Ocon and Sainz, with Piastri sixth ahead of Stroll and Gasly. Hulkenberg then used the lull between runs to head out, and duly went an impressive third only three hundredths slower than Hamilton and the only other car except for the Mercedes to be within a second of the Red Bull at this stage.
But there was still time for everyone else to complete another run - including Alonso, who was finally back out in action. Despite clearly not being at its best, the Aston nonetheless delighted his home fans in the green-hued grandstands by going fourth despite losing a lot of time in the final sector. The Spanish fans were then able to cheer an impressive run from Sainz putting Ferrari second.
Verstappen had to bail out of his final run but he had already done more than enough to secure pole. There were impressive laps from Norris and Gasly to secure the second row, with Hamilton ending up pushed down to fifth despite improving his time on his final lap. Stroll was just behind in sixth followed by Ocon and Hulkenberg, with Alonso ending up in ninth where he will join Piastri on row five of the grid for tomorrow's race - provided the stewards don't see fit to make some adjustments to the positions overnight after meeting with Gasly (and with less significance, with Russell).