Red Bull’s Max Verstappen clinched his first pole position as defending world champion with a superb lap of the Imola circuit.
The Dutchman produced a 1:27.999 in changeable conditions to beat Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc to the pole position.
The qualifying session was heavily delayed with a string of red flags breaking up the action.
Verstappen will start the first sprint race of the year at the front and will be credited with the statistical pole, regardless of the result of tomorrow’s sprint, which sets the grid for Sunday’s race.
The 24-year-old said: “It was tricky out there, dry, rain, very slippery. It was hectic, a long qualifying but at the end I’m very happy to be here. It’s a great track, I know tomorrow and Sunday will be different in terms of weather conditions but a great start to the weekend.”
There were contrasting fortunes for the team-mates of the front row pair, with Sergio Perez down in seventh, the timing of the Q3 red flags badly hurting the Mexican.
Carlos Sainz, fresh off a new Ferrari contract, spun off and hit the wall in Q2, leaving him 10th, as he was second fastest at the time of his spin.
McLaren went one better than their Australia qualifying performance, with Lando Norris finishing third fastest.
He will be joined on the second row by Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, the Dane delivering a great lap in the wet conditions of Q3.
It is Haas’ best ever qualifying result.
Verstappen mastered the tricky conditions, as he so often does, to collect his first pole since Abu Dhabi last year.
Ferrari had appeared to have an edge on the intermediate tyres in the only practice session ahead of qualifying, which was run in similar damp conditions to Q3.
The Dutch driver headed Leclerc by almost eight tenths of a second, even though he had to lift significantly for yellow flags, caused by Bottas parking his Alfa Romeo on the side of the track.
After the session, a happy Verstappen said “It was good out there today but also very easy to make mistakes, so luckily we mainly stayed out of trouble. We started on the slicks initially and then it started raining again, making the right call on how you wanted to prep your laps was key today and ultimately we chose the right one, so I’m of course very pleased with that. When I saw the yellow flags for Valterri I immediately lifted so there won’t be any trouble there, it does cost you lap time but luckily the lap was still good enough for pole. Tomorrow looks to be dry and we haven’t really driven these new cars a lot in the dry here so hopefully in FP2 we can understand the car a bit more in different conditions.”
Red Bull have looked a match for Ferrari so far in 2022, their only concern will be reliability, following a double DNF in Bahrain and Verstappen’s breakdown in Melbourne.
Team Principal Christian Horner added ‘“Max did a super job today, it was an unusual qualifying and the one lap that turned out to count was thankfully the lap we banked and there was just too much rain for anyone to respond. It was a shame for Checo because I think he would have been up there as well today with a clean lap, but that’s encouraging for the F1 sprint tomorrow. Now the challenge will be to hold onto the lead tomorrow – we have got to get a good start, convert it and go from there. The aim tomorrow is to try and bag as many points as we can before the race on Sunday.”
Baring in mind that there is 100km of extra racing this weekend, all the teams will be concerned about managing their cars to the end of Sunday’s race.
Leclerc will be happy enough to be on the front row, although he did say over team radio that he “definitely had the pace” for pole position.
The Ferrari has been strong at all three events so far and the Scuderia topped first practice.
DRS has been a prevalent factor in how Verstappen and Leclerc have raced each other this year and has proven powerful on the long pit straight in Imola.
We could be in for more fun and games between the two tomorrow and Sunday.