Lewis Hamilton delivered a dominant qualifying performance to take pole position for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, with title rival Max Verstappen lining up alongside him in second.
The reigning world champion had the momentum heading into Q3, having been fastest in each of the previous two segments, and put himself in supreme shape after the first runs with a clinical lap.
He was then the first to head out for the second and final runs – and found even more time, smashing into the 1m20s (the only driver to do so) to take pole position by nearly half a second from Verstappen.
The second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas slotted into third, ahead of Pierre Gasly, who had the shine taken off his stunning performance when he ran well wide at the penultimate corner. That dragged him onto a kerb, which shattered his front wing and led to a puncture.
That forced some drivers to back out of their final results, though Fernando Alonso’s first effort was still good enough for a very impressive fifth in what is his second top-five start in the last five races.
Lando Norris put McLaren sixth, to give them the edge in the tight fight with Ferrari for P3 in the constructors’ championship but Carlos Sainz was only a place behind for the Scuderia, as he outqualified his team mate Charles Leclerc for the third successive race.
Yuki Tsunoda continued his great weekend in Qatar with eighth, putting both AlphaTauris in the top 10 for the fourth time in five races.
Esteban Ocon made Q3 for the first time since Russia and will start ninth with Sebastian Vettel closing out the top 10, following his first Q3 in eight races.
It was Bottas who went quickest early on, albeit only 0.003 ahead of Hamilton, but he was later demoted to P3 and the two title protagonists moved into the top spot.
Hamilton had the edge over Verstappen – a gap of just 0.095s – with Sainz continuing his form as the quickest Ferrari driver around Losail with the fourth quickest time.
His team mate Charles Leclerc put pressure on himself when his first timed lap – that was good enough for the top six – was deleted for track limits, and while he left it late, the Monegasque was able to progress with his final effort.
Ocon reported problems with vibrations after his final run and they were still there when he headed out in the closing stages, needing a better lap to get himself out of the drop zone. He delivered the goods to progress, but the vibrations remained.
Kimi Raikkonen just missed out on Q2 in 16th, the Finn joined by the Williams of Nicholas Latifi, the second Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi and the Haas duo of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.
It’s been a challenging weekend for Mazepin, who missed FP2 because a chassis change was required and started qualifying with another setback as he was forced to retreat to the pits with a broken front wing.
Knocked out: Raikkonen, Latifi, Giovinazzi, Schumacher and Mazepin
There was a mix of tyre strategies for Q2, with AlphaTauri, Aston Martin and Alpine opting for the softs – and everyone else choosing the mediums.
Gasly made the most of the soft to go second quickest, with his AlphaTauri team mate Yuki Tsunoda seventh. Both Alpines moved into the top 10, too, with Alonso an impressive sixth. And with Vettel sneaking into the top 10, it put pressure on those on mediums to get the job done.
Leclerc was unable to do that, and ended up 13th, a fraction behind Lance Stroll, with Daniel Ricciardo knocked out too. But the biggest casualty of the session was Perez, who was forced to dump the mediums for the softs for the final run – but as the track cooled, couldn’t find enough time and slipped into 11th and out of the session in what is a big clow to Red Bull and their strategic options for the race.
Hamilton was quickest again, with Verstappen no better than fourth, and Bottas fifth. Norris made it through on the softs, one place ahead of Sainz, the Spaniard throwing everything at his final lap to make it through on the mediums.
Knocked out: Perez, Stroll, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Russell
Having been overshadowed by team mate Bottas on Friday, Hamilton emerged in supreme shape on Saturday, having not only found some good direction overnight with the team but also feeling better after a stomach ache.
He put himself in the best position after the first runs by taking provisional pole and then delivered a second lap that was even better. Remarkably, it gave him only his third pole in the last 16 races.
His margin of 0.455s over Verstappen, who improved on his second lap but still did not threaten Hamilton, was the largest in a dry Q3 all year.
With Perez having already exited qualifying, Bottas did a good job to slot into third and give Mercedes the strategic advantage on Sunday afternoon, with Gasly fourth for the fourth time this year.
His session was tainted when he pulled off the track on the start-finish, having suffered a broken front wing and puncture at the penultimate corner.
Since 2010, the pole-sitter at new circuits has always gone on to win the world championship. Hamilton starts in that slot. Can he put a dent in the 14-point deficit to Verstappen? Or will Verstappen get ahead into Turn 1? The race begins tomorrow at 14:00 GMT.