Charles Leclerc will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole position after edging out Sergio Perez and Lewis Hamilton in a sensational conclusion to a wet-dry qualifying session at the Marina Bay Street Circuit.
Following a rain-hit final practice, conditions improved significantly during the build-up to qualifying and, while intermediates featured in Q1 and Q2, slicks were used across the board for the fastest laps of the decisive Q3 phase.
When it came to the pole position shootout, it was Leclerc who emerged on top amid a flurry of late gains as drivers pushed the limits amid ever-improving grip levels. His 1:49.412s put him just 0.022s clear of Perez and 0.054s ahead of Hamilton.
Max Verstappen had to abandon a final lap that could have put him in the mix as he was called into the pits by his Red Bull team – leading to an expletive filled radio message as the reigning world champion took a lowly eighth place.
Carlos Sainz was fourth in the other Ferrari, while Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, McLaren’s Lando Norris and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly all capitalised on Verstappen’s drama to take positions five to seven. Behind Verstappen, Haas driver Kevin Magnussen and the other AlphaTauri of Yuki Tsunoda rounded out the top 10.
A shock Q2 development saw George Russell drop out in 11th as he struggled to match the pace of team mate Hamilton. Aston Martin pair Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel sandwiched the second Haas of Mick Schumacher in 12th and 14th respectively, with Zhou Guanyu 15th.
Valtteri Bottas fell at the first qualifying hurdle after a late Schumacher improvement demoted him, while Daniel Ricciardo suffered his third Q1 exit in seven weekends, taking 17th. Esteban Ocon had a painful run to 18th – ahead of only Williams pair Alex Albon and Nicholas Latifi – after encountering brake issues.
After a soaking wet FP3 session, the rain clouds edged away from the Marina Bay area and – with Singapore’s typical heat and humidity in full force over the two-hour break – the track had dried significantly by the time qualifying got under way.
Nonetheless, intermediates were still required when the pit lane opened for Q1 as Hamilton kicked proceedings off with a 1:56.937s on the green-marked rubber – almost 15 seconds slower than Sainz’s dry benchmark from FP2.
As the session wore on, a host of drivers lowered the P1 time while they dialled themselves in – Leclerc rescuing a wild slide in the process – and the track ramped up, with Verstappen finishing quickest on a 1:53.057s.
Hamilton trailed Verstappen by a tenth in P2, but there was a significant gap back to the rest of the field, with Leclerc a second off the pace in third, followed by Perez, Sainz and Russell.
Gasly, Vettel, Latifi, Tsunoda and Albon were the drivers on the brink heading into the final minutes of the session, but Gasly, Vettel and Tsunoda all managed to escape with late efforts.
Tsunoda ended up eighth as he underlined the changing conditions, slotting just behind Magnussen, while Alonso – who survived a spin on his final run – and Zhou rounded out the top 10 in the opening exchanges.
Vettel brushed the wall en route to 11th, with Gasly 12th, Stroll 13th, Schumacher 14th (as the final driver to improve) and Norris 15th. While Norris squeezed through, Ricciardo suffered his third Q1 exit in seven race weekends as he could only manage 17th, behind the other Alfa Romeo of Bottas.
Ocon was a surprise name to fall at the first qualifying hurdle, though he reported over the radio that he had “no brakes” on his way to 18th, ahead of the Williams drivers – Albon beating Latifi on his return to the cockpit.
Knocked out: Bottas, Ricciardo, Ocon, Albon and Latifi
It was more of the same as the action resumed in Q2, the 15 remaining drivers putting on more intermediates and the lap times creeping ever lower – Leclerc working his way down to a 1:52.343s.
A few minutes later, with some damp patches lingering, Leclerc made a call to the Ferrari pit wall and asked to switch to slicks, only to be given a fresh set of intermediates for his final run.
With the Scuderia playing it safe, it fell to Stroll and Aston Martin to roll the dice and bolt on slicks, but the Canadian ran wide at Turn 13 and suffered a half-spin. Vettel and Zhou joined Stroll in swapping to slicks but the four-time world champion also had a moment at Turn 7, ending his Q3 hopes.
Up front, Hamilton again took P2, some three-tenths off Leclerc’s time. Verstappen and Perez were next up, with Alonso keeping his place in the top five. Sainz progressed to the pole shootout in sixth, ahead of high-flying AlphaTauri pair Gasly and Tsunoda, while Norris and Magnussen were the final drivers to reach Q3.
This unexpectedly came at the expense of Russell, who missed out by just 0.006s after a difficult session. Referencing his struggles throughout practice, which included a couple of off-track excursions, he apologised to Mercedes over the radio and lamented that he “couldn’t do anything”.
Stroll and Vettel wound up 12th and 14th respectively after their slick gambles backfired, with Schumacher 13th and Zhou 15th – the rookie having also struggled to fire up the red-marked rubber.
Knocked out: Russell, Stroll, Schumacher, Vettel, Zhou
With 10 cars remaining for Q3, the Red Bulls made the first move as Verstappen and Perez headed out on soft tyres – a few more minutes having passed since Vettel, Stroll and Zhou had sampled slicks.
With the aforementioned trio’s sector times showing promise at the end of Q2, Verstappen picked up the mantle, though it initially looked like intermediates could still be the way to go. Indeed, his opening lap of 1:56.940s was some way off the times seen in the previous phase.
However, a cleaner second lap demonstrated that conditions were all but ready for the slick rubber and a flurry of improvements followed, provisional pole changing hands on countless occasions as the clock ticked down to zero.
Ultimately, it was Leclerc (having asked Ferrari to go with softs, not intermediates) who did enough as he stormed to a 1:49.412s to eclipse Perez and Hamilton by the finest of margins – all three drivers getting up close and personal with the barriers in the process.
Verstappen was lighting up the timesheets in the closing stages but Red Bull ordered him to back out of his final lap and return to the pits, with the Dutchman later revealing that his car had been under-fuelled.
That left Sainz to take fourth, ahead of Alonso, Norris and Gasly. Verstappen will line up eighth, needing another standout recovery drive if he is to claim victory and have any chance of securing the title this weekend. Magnussen and Tsunoda were the final Q3 runners.
Can Leclerc convert pole position into victory in the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix? Or can Verstappen stage another comeback as he goes for title glory? Sunday’s 61-lap race is set to begin at 20:00 local time (13:00 GMT) with Leclerc and Perez set to do battle into turn one.