Max Verstappen secured the second pole position of his career to mark his Red Bull boss Christian Horner’s 46th birthday in style on Saturday when he topped the qualifying times for Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
The 22-year-old Dutchman produced a best lap in one minute and 7.508 seconds to outpace four-time champion Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in a final flurry while newly-crowned six-time champion Lewis Hamilton settled for third for Mercedes.
Vettel’s Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc qualified fourth, but faces a 10-place grid penalty after taking a new engine, ahead of Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes and Alex Albon in the second Red Bull.
Pierre Gasly was seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas’s Romain Grosjean, Kimi Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo and Kevin Magnussen in the second Haas.
“Yes boys, that was really good!” said Verstappen on team radio. “That’s the best birthday present – isn’t it Christian?”
Horner praised Verstappen for topping the times in all three parts of qualifying with a dazzling display of his speed at the undulating Interlagos circuit. “That was the best birthday present,” he said. “You were brilliant in all three sessions.”
“The car was really good,” said Verstappen. “The track temperature was changing and we had to adjust a little bit for that, but the car was really flying – I’m really happy with pole position.
Vettel said: “I had a bit of a wobble on the exit on my first run, but I think Max improved his time so fair play – it’s his pole position. He did it and let’s see what happens and what we can do tomorrow.”
Hamilton said: “Congratulations to Max. That was a great lap by him. We seemed to be quite competitive in Q3 and then we seemed to lose some ground – or they gained! I think we’ve been down on power compared to the others, but I have it everything I had.
“My best lap of the session was at the end so it was awesome. This is such a tough race to win – the track is very challenging!”
Leclerc facing grid penalty
In dry and warm conditions, Q1 began with the Williams drivers out first in front of an appreciative crowd at the atmospheric Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, many of the noisy and colourful fans having queued to enjoy a session bereft of Brazilian drivers.
Nico Hulkenberg, in what may be his penultimate Grand Prix, squeezed through to Q2 with a last-gasp lap that lifted him to 10th ahead of his Renault team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, but out went Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso, Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, both Williams men George Russell and Robert Kubica and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz.
Spaniard Sainz was unable to clock a time after pulling in with an engine problem while, up front, Verstappen led the way ahead of Leclerc and Albon. Bottas was fourth, Vettel fifth and Hamilton down in sixth.
Bottas and Hamilton led the way in Q2, the champion going top with 1:08.088 before Leclerc, on mediums, and then Verstappen took over, the Red Bull lapping in 1:07.503 to move half a second clear of the Mercedes men.
Facing an expected 10-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after taking a new engine, Leclerc switched back to softs for his second Q2 run, but will start on the mediums he had used earlier.
Out from Q2, in rapidly falling track temperatures, went Lando Norris of McLaren, the two Renaults of Ricciardo and Hulkenberg, either side of Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi, and Racing Point’s Sergio Perez.
On their first flying runs, Verstappen found the pace to beat Vettel by 0.008 seconds for provisional pole ahead of Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas with Albon sixth.
The top six were separated by three-tenths of a second with Grosjean 1.8 seconds adrift in seventh for Haas.
It was a near-perfect scenario for a closely-fought finale in the final minutes of a tense and dramatic session with Verstappen setting the pace.