Max Verstappen took pole position at the Qatar Grand Prix and needed just one run in the final qualifying session to do so.
Mercedes drivers George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were promoted to second and third after penalties handed to McLaren’s Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri.
Norris and Piastri had finished second and fourth, sandwiching Russell, but lost their time for exceeding the track limits.
Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso starts fourth.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc will start from fifth after teammate Carlos Sainz failed to make the top 10 on penalties.
The qualifying session set the starting grid for Sunday’s Grand Prix, by which time perhaps the most important result of the weekend has already occurred.
Saturday is dedicated to the sprint event, with a qualifying session followed by a short race, and this could culminate in the crowning of champion-elect Verstappen.
Verstappen will win the title as long as he does not lose six or more points to Perez in an event that awards eight points to the winner, then a sliding scale down to one point for eighth.
That question was on the back burner on Friday, and in addition to the conflict for Sainz, there was another big scalp in the second qualifying session, when Red Bull’s Sergio Perez was eliminated.
The sanctions imposed on Norris and Piastri led to comical scenes in post-session television interviews.
Russell first asked, “Where is Lando?” when Piastri showed up to be interviewed after him. And then the Australian was told he also had a penalty just as he finished speaking.
Piastri’s first lap of the session was enough to put him sixth on the grid, while Norris, whose two lap times were deleted for violating track limits, will line up 10th, behind the Alpines of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon and Valtteri of Alfa Romeo. Bottas.
Supreme Verstappen; Mercedes surprise
Verstappen set his best time in his first run, then ran wide at turns four and five in his second run. But he was out of reach of his rivals, as he has been for most of the season.
Verstappen said: “It was difficult for everyone. With the new Tarmac there wasn’t much grip and as soon as you tried to get a little more speed into the corner the rear would come out. “
“That made it very difficult to find the limit and see how much the track was improving without going over the limit.”
Russell said Mercedes did not expect to be so strong in Qatar, on a track dominated by fast corners, an area where they have struggled this season.
“In the second half of the season, the pace of qualifying (for me) was exceptional,” Russell said. “I feel really confident in the car, but we definitely didn’t expect to finish second and third for the Grand Prix.”
He said the advantage Norris gained by running wide was nowhere near the 0.2 second gap between the two cars.
“We know we are half a step behind McLaren at the moment,” Russell added, “but our fight at the moment is with Ferrari for second place in the constructors’ championship.”
Ferrari and Perez in difficulty
The Ferrari looked like a handful on the track. Leclerc ran wide several times in turns four and five, but managed to stay on course for what was seventh place before the McLarens were penalized.
He suffered less from the car’s erratic behavior than his teammate Sainz, who was 0.249 seconds slower, a sufficient margin to see him eliminated at the end of the second session.
Perez also had his fastest lap in Q2 removed and even that lap was 0.8 seconds slower than Verstappen’s best in the same session.