Verstappen on pole as lightning red flags Q3 in Brazil


Despite not looking at his strongest at times in qualifying, Red Bull's Max Verstappen still took pole position for Sunday's Sao Paulo Grand Prix with Ferrari's Charles Leclerc set to join him on the front row.

Aston Martin bounced back to form with Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso locking out the second row, and Lewis Hamilton and George Russell making it an all-Mercedes row three behind them.

McLaren's Lando Norris had been looking a strong contender for pole but his single Q3 run was compromised as long-threatening inclement weather suddenly turned in a full blown storm that forced an early red flag to the session leaving him in P7.

A return to the sprint race format this week meant there had only been time for a single practice session at Autódromo José Carlos Pace on Friday. With many teams holding back on using their sets of soft tyres it had been a topsy turvy order headed by Ferrari duo Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. George Russell was the leading driver on medium tyres in the Mercedes, and Max Verstappen just P16 on the hard compound. Really though it had told us nothing about the respective level of performances of the teams and drivers, and everyone was heading into qualifying essentially flying blind.

Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB19 leaves the pits.
03.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 21, Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Qualifying Day.
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Q1: Russell and Verstappen lead delayed first round, AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo miss the cut

The start of qualifying was delayed by a quarter of an hour for the track to be cleaned up, after drivers reported encountering dirt and debris during practice and in the intervening support race. "The track is very dirty," commented Haas principal Guenther Steiner. "I think FP1 had some debris so they are just cleaning the track to make it as safe as it can be."

Another headache for all involved was the possibility of incoming rain with heavy clouds gathering overhead. "The chance [of rain] is 50 per cent," Steiner told F1TV. "I don't know exactly when it might come but if it does come, Interlagos, the sky just opens." He turned out to be spot-on, but it was still dry as the lights at the end of pit lane went green to get the session underway at last. The threat of work meant drivers were especially keen to get straight to work.

McLaren's Oscar Piastri set the first time of the session with a lap of 1:11.494s and then it was the turn of first Lance Stroll and then Lando Norris to take charge, the McLaren going three tenths quicker than the first fliers from Lewis Hamilton and Verstappen. Sainz, Leclerc and Sergio Perez were still in the drop zone even as the Ferrari pit wall told their drivers that there would be no rain "for the next two to three minutes" - meaning there really was no time to waste.

Leclerc duly popped to the top with a new benchmark of 1:10.472s, Sainz making his bow safely in P4. Piastri's latest lap was just 0.047s behind the Monegasque, while track evolution was demonstrated by Stroll moving back up to third as Perez also moved to safety in fifth. Yuki Tsunoda, Valtteri Bottas, Logan Sargeant, Alex Albon and Zhou Guanyu were left at risk of elimination. Tsunoda soon found safety in the top ten, demoting Kevin Magnussen into the bottom five and leaving his Haas team mate Nico Hulkenberg on the bubble. Not even Hamilton - now in eighth - was feeling safe at this stage, as proved by Albon suddenly moving up to fourth. Bottas improving to 13th meant Daniel Ricciardo was now at risk of missing the cut.

Despite facing a post-session investigation into impeding Pierre Gasly earlier in the round, Russell had an excellent final sector to go top from Verstappen and Leclerc. Hulkenberg had flown to fourth ahead of Piastri, Stroll and Alonso, but there was no reprieve for Ricciardo. He was joined in the bottom five by his team mate Tsunoda, and Bottas had also been backed up into the danger zone in the final seconds along with Zhou and Sargeant.

Pierre Gasly (FRA) Alpine F1 Team A523.
03.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 21, Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Qualifying Day.
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Q2: Norris pips Verstappen and Perez as Alpine, Haas and Albon all miss the cut

The Red Bulls were quick to get back to work on a fresh set of softs apiece, with the team pit wall warning of "very, very light spots on pit lane" although the verdict from Haas was that the rain would miss them for now. Verstappen promptly asserted his dominance with a time of 1:10.162s, two tenths quicker than Perez, until the pair were split by the arrival of Norris and Piastri.

Struggling to make it into the top ten and needing to find some significant improvement in pace were Leclerc, Russell and Sainz. The Haas cars were last to set a time, both of them moving into the top ten leaving Albon and Alonso pushed out.

There was a massive snap for Hamilton that nearly sent the Mercedes flying off, but he controlled it and moved up to P6 while Russell showed there was even more pace to be found from the Mercedes by shooting up to second. Sainz then squeezed ahead, although he remained a tenth off Verstappen's benchmark. It was Norris who managed to knock the Dutch driver off the top with a time of 1:10.021s, while Alonso produced some real pace to move up to third in the Aston Martin until displaced from that spot by the latest from Perez.

With the rain still holding off, there was time for one more try but neither of the Alpines nor the two Haas could find enough improvement to break out of the bottom five, with Albon joining them on the sidelines. It had been a lucky escape for Stroll even though the Canadian finished just 0.354s off the top time set by Norris.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB19.
03.11.2023. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 21, Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo, Brazil, Qualifying Day.
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Q3: Verstappen takes pole from Leclerc as storm forces early finish

The skies were increasingly dark and heavy and the wind had picked up, but the rain was still just holding off as the remaining cars emerged from pit lane in a rush to begin the final top ten pole shoot-out round. First blood went to 1:10.727s which was three tenths ahead of Leclerc, Stroll, Alonso, Hamilton and Russell. However the weather front was suddenly making its presence felt, immediately compromising the laps of Norris, Sainz and Perez who had all opted to run last, as well as Piastri who went off into the grass and failed to set a time.

Within minutes day had turned into night as wind and heavy rain assaulted the circuit with abrupt ferocity. With lightning in the sky, race control had no option but to red flag the session. There was no chance of qualifying resuming, meaning that the grid for Sunday was set.

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