Red Bull’s Max Verstappen upset the formbook with a blistering lap in Mexican Grand Prix qualifying to snatch pole position – though the final segment of qualifying was ultimately disrupted by a big crash for title contender Valtteri Bottas.
Ferrari appeared to have the legs on the field in terms of one-lap pace based on Friday practice data, the Scuderia making the most of their power advantage on the long straight in the first sector – but Verstappen was hanging onto their coattails, even if he rated his qualifying chances as very poor.
But when it really mattered, Verstappen turned it on with a brilliant opening lap and then went even quicker on his final run, as he flashed past Bottas’ crashed car on the exit of the final corner to set a new lap record by 0.001s.
Charles Leclerc joined Verstappen on the front row – the Monegasque making a series of mistakes on his last run in the final sequence of corners as he failed to improve. His Ferrari team mate Sebastian Vettel looked on course to usurp Leclerc, but like many of his rivals, he was forced to abort the lap with Bottas in the barriers.
Championship leader Lewis Hamilton, who must finish 14 points clear of Bottas to seal his sixth title, crossed the line fourth, a fraction ahead of Red Bull’s Alex Albon, with Bottas – who walked away from the crash unscathed, if a little shaken – was sixth.
Carlos Sainz was best of the rest, the Spaniard finishing three-tenths of a second clear of McLaren team mate Lando Norris in seventh, with the Toro Rosso duo of Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly completing the top 10.
Bottas now faces an anxious wait to see how much damage was caused as a result of his crash and whether it will require any changes that will result in grid penalties that may ultimately end his title hopes and hand the crown to Hamilton.
The day belonged to Verstappen, though, who secured his second career pole position and halted Ferrari’s five-race pole streak, leaving him perfectly poised to score a third successive victory at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.
The drivers were greeted by packed grandstands at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with the sun finally breaking through just before qualifying got under way.
Red Bull bolted out of the blocks, with Verstappen setting the early pace, a couple of tenths clear of team mate Albon, who impressively got on the pace quickly having lost most of FP2 following a crash.
Ferrari were their closest challengers, but Leclerc was still four tenths adrift on the same soft compound tyres. Kvyat was the most impressive of the midfield teams with the Russian confirming Toro Rosso’s early weekend pace with sixth.
Despite some tummy trouble, Kvyat’s team mate Gasly impressed with the ninth quickest time, kust 0.003s adrift of Mercedes’ Bottas in eighth.
Renault failed to set a lap time in final practice after they detected a pollution of one of the cooling systems on both cars but they managed to get both cars out in time for Q1 with Ricciardo and Hulkenberg comfortably making it through
There was less good news for Lance Stroll, who was booted out of qualifying for the 13th time this year, along with both Haas – who fail to make it into Q2 for the fourth successive year – and the two Williams.
Knocked out: Stroll, Magnussen, Grosjean, Russell, Kubica
Mediums were the tyres of choice for Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren’s Sainz, the seven drivers keen to see if they could get through to Q3 on that rubber to avoid them having to start on the soft, which is predicted to only last around 10 laps in the race.
Vettel vaulted to the top of the times after the first runs, the Ferrari driver edging out Verstappen, with Leclerc third. Bottas made an error on his first lap, so had to go again and subsequently popped into fourth, ahead of team mate Hamilton, who used some fruity language to describe his mediums after going off briefly.
Sainz could only manage 11th on the mediums, so he swapped to softs and promptly leapt into fourth. Mercedes sent both drivers out on mediums again, while Ferrari and Red Bull opted for softs. Hamilton and Bottas found a burst of pace to move into first and second, while the Ferraris and Red Bulls backed out of it, so they could start the race on the mediums.
The Toro Rosso duo made it four Honda-powered cars in the top 10, with Lando Norris joining team mate Sainz in Q3. Sergio Perez just missed out on Q3 in 11th, but he will get a free tyre choice in front of his home fans. Both Renaults failed to improve, so also got knocked out, along with the two Alfa Romeos.
Knocked out: Perez, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, Raikkonen, Giovinazzi.
It was Verstappen who got the job done in the first runs, the Red Bull driver the first to dip down into the 1:14s. Leclerc got close, just a tenth adrift, with Vettel slotting into third. Hamilton was the best-placed Mercedes, 0.380s off the pace.
There were personal bests all over the place in the second runs, with Leclerc the first to cross the line but failing to improve. Bottas then brought out the double waved yellow flags when he crashed heavily at the final corner.
That prevented anyone else improving, meaning Leclerc held onto second, his sixth consecutive front row start, with Vettel slotting into third. He’ll have his work cut out to win from there as no drive as won in Mexico from outside the front row since Alain Prost reached the top step from 13th on the grid.
Hamilton’s fourth place is his worst ever start in Mexico, and you have to go back to the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix – a gap of more than 10 years – since he last won from that position.
Fifth for Albon is a career-best start while Botta – who went to the medical centre following his crash and given the all-clear – was sixth. Sainz’s P7 means this will be the fifth race in a row he will start in the top seven on the grid. By outqualifying team mate Norris, the Spaniard has levelled the qualifying head-to-head at nine a piece.
Kvyat outqualified Gasly for only the second time in six races as team mates, as both Toro Rossos made Q3 for the first time since the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Mexican Grand Prix kicks off at 19:10 GMT. Can Max make it three in a row at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez?