Lewis Hamilton claimed his 99th career pole position in qualifying Saturday for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez starting alongside the seven-time world champion’s Mercedes at Imola.

Max Verstappen, runner-up to Hamilton at the season-opening race in Bahrain last month, will begin third on the grid in the other Red Bull as the top three were separated by less than one-tenth of a second.

“The day’s been great obviously,” said Hamilton. “I definitely didn’t expect us to be ahead of the two Red Bulls. They’ve been so quick this weekend.

“There were times when they were six-tenths ahead and we didn’t really know where we’d be. But the car was already feeling a lot better from the beginning this weekend.”

“I knew going into qualifying and especially that last lap, it was going to take something special,” he added.

“It really had to be the most perfect lap and a little bit more to beat the Red Bulls because they really have been so fast all weekend. And I didn’t honestly know whether we could do it.”

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc qualified in fourth ahead of Pierre Gasly, Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris, who was heading for second but had his lap time deleted for exceeding track limits.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas could only manage eighth, with Esteban Ocon and Lance Stroll rounding out the top 10.

Carlos Sainz failed to make it to Q3 and will start in 11th position in the second Ferrari.

Two-time former world champion Fernando Alonso was a disappointing 15th, six places behind Alpine team-mate Ocon.

Hamilton edged out Perez by 0.035 seconds, the Mexican in turn sneaking ahead of Verstappen by 0.052sec in just his second race with his new team.

“I didn’t expect to be here but I should have been on pole - I did a mistake on my final corner, but tomorrow is what matters,” said Perez, after securing his best qualifying position to date ahead of a 193rd Grand Prix start.

Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who impressed by coming ninth on his F1 debut in Bahrain, planted his Alpha Tauri into the wall coming out of a chicane in Q1 and will set off from the back on Sunday.

“First of all, the body feels OK - no issues,” said the 20-year-old Tsunoda.

“Just pushing too much in entry. I had massive instability in entry, massive slap and couldn’t control that car and just spun into the barrier. The car was amazing and it was just a huge mistake. Really sorry for the team, and I’m just going to have to come back tomorrow.”