Red Bull driver Max Verstappen charged to his first-ever Spanish Grand Prix pole position by comfortably getting the better of Ferrari rival Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Lando Norris in Saturday’s qualifying session at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Verstappen, who won the event in 2016 and 2022 but has never started it from the front of the grid, converted his practice clean sweep into P1 for Sunday’s race with a dominant performance across the grid-deciding hour.
Indeed, having pumped in an initial lap of 1:12.272s in the pole shootout, Verstappen was afforded the luxury of backing off from his second attempt and still finished almost half a second up on home hero Sainz and Norris, who emerged as his nearest rivals in an action-packed session.
That included Charles Leclerc dropping out of the Q1 phase amid car complaints, the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez falling at the second qualifying hurdle after a trip through the gravel, and George Russell also exiting in Q2 after a bizarre incident with team mate Lewis Hamilton.
Pierre Gasly took fourth in another strong showing for Alpine, albeit with stewards’ investigations hanging over him after he got in the way of rival cars, as Hamilton and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll completed the top six positions.
Esteban Ocon put the other Alpine seventh, with Nico Hulkenberg leading Haas’ charge in eighth, Fernando Alonso ninth after running out of sequence with the rest of the field in Q3, and McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri 10th.
Perez followed up his Q1 exit in Monaco with another compromised qualifying session, having run off-track at Turn 5 during Q2, while Russell could do no more than 12th after banging wheels with Hamilton down the start/finish straight as the Mercedes pair converged on the racing line.
Zhou Guanyu was the lead Alfa Romeo in 13th position, with AlphaTauri team mates Nyck de Vries and Yuki Tsunoda recovering from some early spins to take 14th and 15th respectively – the Dutchman continuing to build up confidence after a mixed start to the season.
Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen lacked pace compared to their respective Alfa Romeo and Haas team mates, dropping out at the Q1 stage in 16th and 17th respectively, with Leclerc dramatically following them as he complained about car problems from the outset.
Leclerc’s first Q1 exit since Monaco 2019 left him a lowly 19th on the grid, between Williams pair Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant, the latter unable to make an impression after mechanics worked hard to repair the car he damaged during a final practice crash.
With rain falling during final practice and continuing into the F2 support race that followed, it initially looked as though qualifying would take place on a wet track surface, but a break in the weather – and the ongoing warm temperatures – meant the tarmac rapidly dried up.
Eyes were still on the skies, however, with further spits of rain arriving just before Q1 got under way and a huge queue of cars immediately heading out on track to get a banker lap in on the slick tyres – the chance of showers during the session sitting at around 30%.
There was drama almost immediately as Tsunoda lost control of his AlphaTauri over a damp patch and spun exiting Turn 11, with Bottas and team mate De Vries doing the same a couple of minutes later, while Alonso ran wildly wide at the final corner and Albon went off at Turn 5.
At this point, with gravel sitting on several areas of the track and needing to be cleaned up, a red flag was thrown – Gasly having set the initial benchmark on a 1:14.618s from team mate Ocon, Stroll, Magnussen, Hamilton, Russell and Alonso, as Hulkenberg lost a time for exceeding track limits.
When the track action resumed, Verstappen posted a 1:13.660s to go quicker than his pace-setting FP3 time at the first time of asking, with Piastri slotting into second from Ocon, Zhou and Sainz, who survived a near-miss when he approached a slow-moving Gasly at the penultimate corner in an incident that will be looked at post-qualifying.
Meanwhile, De Vries went for another spin coming out of Turn 11 and lamented “what am I doing wrong there?”, but the rookie got his act together next time around to jump out of the drop zone and leave Tsunoda, Russell, Albon, Sargeant and Leclerc in danger with six minutes to run.
“There is something wrong with my rears, guys,” reported Leclerc following an off-track excursion at Turn 1, with the Monegasque then called into the weighbridge on his return to the pits, piling on the pressure ahead of what would be an all-or-nothing final run.
But it would go from bad to worse for last year’s pole-sitter, who could not deliver the required improvement on the run to the chequered flag and wound up a scarcely believable P19, ahead of only Williams rookie Sargeant, who was cut adrift of the field after his FP3 crash.
At the other end of the timesheets, a flurry of improvements in the ever-improving conditions saw Hamilton come out on top on a 1:12.937s, just under four-tenths clear of Norris and team mate Russell, followed by Sainz, Hulkenberg, Alpine pair Ocon and Gasly, De Vries, Verstappen – another to lose time behind Gasly – and Zhou.
Piastri tumbled down the order to 11th but still safely made it through to Q2 in 11th, along with the Aston Martins of Alonso and Stroll, Tsunoda and Perez, who was fortunate not to join Leclerc as another Q1 upset in the other Red Bull.
Bottas and Magnussen could not follow their team mates through to Q2, dropping out in 16th and 17th respectively, with Albon the other driver to fall at the first qualifying hurdle alongside the aforementioned Leclerc and Sargeant.
Knocked out: Bottas, Magnussen, Albon, Leclerc, Sargeant
When Q2 began, Verstappen continued where he left off by clocking a 1:12.760s on a set of fresh soft tyres, with Perez backing him up in second, more than eight-tenths adrift, but having completed his first timed effort on used rubber.
After an abandoned lap, Hamilton lit up the timing screens to go second, 0.239s down on Verstappen, with Alonso, Ocon, Stroll, Russell and Gasly also slotting between the Red Bulls, and Sainz and Zhou holding the final passes for Q3.
That left Norris, Piastri, De Vries, Tsunoda and Hulkenberg in the drop zone ahead of the final sequence of laps, which saw Perez run wide at Turn 5, slide through the gravel and leave him with a battle on his hands to make the pole shootout.
Verstappen did not need to post another time as he wrapped up the top spot once again, finishing marginally ahead of Norris and Sainz, as Hamilton led the Mercedes attack after a strange coming together with team mate Russell saw the Silver Arrows bang wheels on the main straight – leaving the seven-time world champion with front wing damage.
Ocon, Piastri, the Aston Martins of Stroll and Alonso, Gasly and Hulkenberg were the final drivers to make it through to Q3, with Perez missing out after his visit to the gravel and left to lament another difficult qualifying session off the back of his Q1 accident in Monaco.
Russell apologised over the radio as he missed the cut and had to settle for 12th, via the added drama of that intra-team clash with Hamilton, while Alfa Romeo’s Zhou and AlphaTauri pair De Vries and Tsunoda brought up the rear in the Q2 segment.
Knocked out: Perez, Russell, Zhou, De Vries, Tsunoda
Verstappen kicked off Q3 with another blistering effort on another new set of soft tyres, getting down to a 1:12.272s, almost a second clear of nearest rival Hamilton, as Hulkenberg used his one-and-only shootout run to go third.
Alonso also went for a single flying lap, rising to P4 before a flurry of late laps sent the timesheets scrolling, but there would be no change at the top as Verstappen bagged his fourth pole of the season without needing to complete a second lap.
“That last lap was going to be very lovely,” Verstappen commented over the radio, before being told that it was “not worth taking the last sector” on a revised layout now featuring a rapid final corner that puts plenty of stress on the tyres.
Sainz and Norris took advantage of the surprise Q1 and Q2 eliminations to place second and third, followed by Gasly – on his way to the stewards for the blocking incidents with Sainz and Verstappen – Hamilton and Stroll.
Ocon made it two Alpines in the top 10, followed by Hulkenberg, Alonso – who faces a tall order to make it onto the podium in front of his adoring home fans – and Piastri, with the top 10 runners covered by just over a second.
The 2023 Spanish Grand Prix is set to begin at 1500 local time on Sunday (14:00GMT). Can home favourite Carlos Sainz end Red Bull’s 100% winning record this season or will Verstappen take the spoils once again?