MONTMELÓ, Spain (AP) — Formula One championship leader Charles Leclerc recovered from a spin in qualifying to put his Ferrari on the pole for the Spanish Grand Prix in a last-gasp run that bumped reigning world champion Max Verstappen.
Leclerc shouted “that was good!” after his run in the closing moments of the third round of Saturday qualifying. His spin earlier in the round had sent him scurrying to the pits for a change of tires. He then tore off for his final run.
Leclerc went 1 minute, 18.750 seconds around Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. He dropped Verstappen in a Red Bull to second by a margin of 0.323 seconds as Leclerc won his fourth pole of the season and 13th of his career.
He snapped a streak of nine consecutive poles for Mercedes at the 4.6-kilometer (2.8-mile) circuit.
“I did a mistake on my first run, but in the end I made it stick,” Leclerc said. “Very happy with that lap and that I made it work with the only chance I had.”
Montreal's Lance Stroll qualified 18th and Toronto's Nicholas Latifi was 20th.
Carlos Sainz, Spain's best chance at a win in its own grand prix, qualified third to put both Ferrari's at the front.
Verstappen was preparing for his own final run to try to snatch the pole back from Leclerc, but his DRS flap failed to open and ruined his chance. Now he's banking on Red Bull’s good long runs and tire preservation skills to beat Leclerc come Sunday.
“It is a shame because I would have liked a last run,” said Verstappen, who got his first career win here in 2016. “Tomorrow will be very hot and this track is very hard to pass but hopefully it will kinder on our tires.”
Verstappen said Red Bull was looking into the malfunction. When his Red Bull hasn't failed him, Verstappen has proven faster than Leclerc, whose two wins in Bahrain and Australia came after his top rival had to retire.
Mercedes showed a significant turnaround from the struggles its had through the first five races of the season with its new car. George Russell qualified fourth and once again outran new teammate Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time champion qualified sixth, with Red Bull driver Sergio Perez sandwiched between the Mercedes drivers.
Hamilton has won the last five Spanish Grand Prix's, and the pole-sitter has won 23 out of 31 times because the track has so few passing zones.
Leclerc, who was fastest in all three practice sessions ahead of qualifying, holds a 19-point lead over Verstappen after five races. But Verstappen has gained momentum from consecutive victories at Imola and Miami, and the Dutchman has three wins to Leclerc’s two.
“I am in a strong position to start the race, but I have been struggling with my tires and with Max right behind, if we don’t manage them well we will lose that advantage," Leclerc said.
Former champions Sebastian Vettel and local favorite Fernando Alonso both failed to advance out of the first qualifying round. When told by Aston Martin team radio that he was 16th, Vettel replied “You must be kidding.”
Alonso has not had a joyous homecoming so far. He qualified 17th for Alpine, accused the FIA of incompetence in race control, and was penalized during one of Friday’s practices.
Spain’s greatest driver has struggled this season and the two-time F1 champion has scored only two points, while Alpine teammate Esteban Ocon has scored 24.
Qualifying for Sunday's race was held on a warm, sunny day at the track near Barcelona. Although large parts of Spain are under a heatwave alert with May temperatures that rank among the hottest in two decades, it was a still bearable 34 C (93 F) during qualifying.
Over 100,000 fans are expected at the first Spanish GP with full spectators since 2019; the public was not permitted to attend in 2020 and only 1,000 fans were allowed inside in 2021 because of pandemic restrictions.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press