Max Verstappen tops Charles Leclerc in qualifying for F1 sprint race at Imola

Verstappen Leclerc Hamilton Imola
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IMOLA, Italy — Formula One champion Max Verstappen earned his first pole position of the F1 season after an incident-packed session Friday, beating Charles Leclerc while Lewis Hamilton was caught out in qualifying for the sprint race at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.

There were five red flags in qualifying, including three in the final Q3 round on a rain-sodden day at Imola.

The last red flag cut qualifying short with Red Bull driver Verstappen 0.779 seconds ahead of series leader Charles Leclerc in his Ferrari and 1.132 ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris.

“It was tricky out there. It was very slippery. It was hectic, a long qualifying. But of course at the end I’m very happy to be here,” Verstappen said. “This is a good start to the weekend.

“Our first three races in general didn’t go to plan but we’ll try to have a good weekend here.”

Verstappen won the Saudi Arabian GP but that was sandwiched between retirements in Bahrain and Australia. He is already 46 points behind Leclerc, who leads the championship by 34 points over Mercedes driver George Russell after winning two of the three races.

After also securing two pole positions, Leclerc admitted he was disappointed not to get a third in front of the passionate Ferrari “tifosi,” at the team’s home circuit.

“I’m disappointed because I made the decision to keep the tyres until the end of the session and then there was a red flag and then it ended,” Leclerc said. “So it’s my fault, but for things I couldn’t control. We’ll try to put everything together tomorrow and after tomorrow.”

There was contrasting fortune for Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., who spun at the start of Q2 (the day after his Ferrari contract extension was announced). There was also more disappointment for Mercedes after Lewis Hamilton and Russell went out in Q2, too.

“We underperformed as a team today,” a clearly downbeat Hamilton said. “There are things we should have done but we didn’t do. We will work as hard as we can to move up in the sprint race.

“Each weekend is a rescue.”

Kevin Magnussen completed the second row, followed by Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, with Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel rounding out the top 10.

Instead of the usual three practices to get to grips with the car, there was only one practice followed by qualifying on Friday for Saturday’s sprint. The results set the grid for Sunday’s grand prix and also offer points for the top eight finishers – in a slight change from last year’s debut of the format.

Ferrari dominated practice and again looked like the team to beat after a one-two in the session. They sandwiched Verstappen on the leaderboard at the end of Q1, before disaster struck early in Q2 when Sainz spun off across the gravel and into the barriers.

The red flags came out – for the second time in the session – and some Ferrari fans had their hands over their heads in disappointment. The passionate “tifosi” have been packing out the circuit in their red-colored droves this weekend, with more than 120,000 tickets sold.

Imola returned to the F1 calendar in 2020 after a 14-year absence, but this is the first time in three editions that fans have been allowed in because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the rain coming again after Sainz’s crash, the fate of the bottom five was all but sealed and they opted not to come out for the remaining 10 minutes. That included Hamilton and Russell.

The flags were out again early in Q3, after Magnussen went spinning into the gravel but he manged to bounce back out under his own steam.

Qualifying was also stopped with three minutes remaining following an incident for Bottas as Verstappen went quickest. And that proved crucial as, shortly after the restart, Norris went into the barriers at Acque Minerali. And with just 38 seconds remaining, the session was not resumed.