Charles Leclerc secured pole for Ferrari in the Italian Grand Prix in shambolic circumstances on Saturday when only two cars participated in the final qualifying showdown laps.
An unprecedented ‘cat-and-mouse’ procession as the teams crawled round the circuit, backing each other up to claim good slipstreaming positions, resulted in a farce that saw eight cars timed out by the chequered flag.
“A big mess,” said Leclerc, who took pole ahead of defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
The Monegasque and Carlos Sainz of McLaren were the only drivers to produce final qualifying runs after clocking lap-times on their first runs in Q3.
The stewards immediately declared that the shambolic failure at the end of the session was under investigation, the teams having failed to deliver a contest for the paying public.
“Today, to see so many people here feels amazing,” said a happy Leclerc, who claimed his maiden victory at last week’s tragic Belgian Grand Prix where he dedicated his win to the memory of his late friend Anthoine Hubert, who was killed in the previous day’s F2 race. “I am happy with pole, but disappointed at the end.
“Honestly, I have to be grateful we’re on the front row to have a fight with the Ferraris,” said Hamilton. “It’s a bit of an anti-climax, but we just timed out.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified third in the second Mercedes ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari, the two Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg and Sainz, who was seventh.
Red Bull new boy Alex Albon was eighth ahead of Lance Stroll of Racing Point and Kimi Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo, both of whom failed to clock a time in Q3 when Raikkonen crashed. He was uninjured.
Bottas said he and Mercedes had been unlucky to be trapped in the bunched traffic. “The yellow flag in the last corner meant we probably missed the pole.”
The Q1 session started in dry conditions and warm late-summer sunshine with a welcome air temperature of 23 degrees Celsius and the track at 38, a near-perfect invitation for Ferrari to delight a big red crowd in the old Autodromo Nazionale.
As expected, the top teams made a cautious start as they looked for enough room to launch a tag-team slipstreaming show. When they did, Leclerc soon went top to be passed promptly by both Renaults, led by Hulkenberg.
Leclerc rose again to wild cheering from the tifosi after a brief red-flagged suspension when Sergio Perez pulled up at Curva Grande.
That cost him a spot in Q2 as he went out along with Romain Grosjean of Haas, the two Williams men George Russell and Robert Kubica and Verstappen, who suffered a power failure.
The Dutchman was set to take penalties and start at or near the back anyway, but this continued a recent run of setbacks.
Hamilton was out early and soon on top in Q2 before Leclerc took over with a lap in 1:19.553, just a tenth faster than the champion and Vettel, before Hamilton went top in 1:19.464.
Hamilton led Bottas out of the Mercedes garage ahead of the two Ferraris for Q3 and then stopped at the pit-lane exit to allow them to pass – a strategic move that left Vettel as a reluctant leader.
Leclerc topped the opening runs ahead of Hamilton before Raikkonen went off backwards into the barriers at Parabolica to bring a red-flagged stoppage.
This left Bottas as one of four men without an initial lap time before he was re-instated as third behind Leclerc and Bottas, the top trio separated by 0.047 before the final crazy showdown sprints. ss