SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Formula One championship leader Max Verstappen stormed to pole position for the Japanese Grand Prix on Saturday, shrugging off a challenging weekend in Singapore a week ago with a dominant performance in qualifying at the Suzuka Circuit.
Looking to return to the top of the podium after missing out in Singapore, the Red Bull driver clocked a blazing lap of 1 minute, 28.877 seconds to finish .581 seconds ahead of McLaren rookie Oscar Piastri, whose teammate Lando Norris was third.
It was Verstappen’s ninth pole of the season but first since the Dutch Grand Prix a month ago.
“An incredible weekend so far and especially in qualifying when you can really push it to the limit, it felt really, really nice,” Verstappen said. “We had a bad weekend in Singapore but from our preparation we felt this was going to be a good track for us.”
Verstappen, who has led every session since arriving in Japan, can’t secure the drivers’ championship in Sunday’s race but could wrap up his third consecutive title on Oct. 8 in Qatar.
The Dutchman saw his record streak of 10 consecutive wins end at Marina Bay — where Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz won — but looks to be back in winning form at the Suzuka circuit where he clinched his second consecutive drivers’ championship last year.
Australian rookie Piastri will start from the front row for the first time in his F1 career.
“It will be cool, there is only one car ahead to overtake so I will try to make it happen,” said the 22-year-old Piastri, who just signed a contract extension with McLaren until the end of the 2026.
Norris completed an impressive day for McLaren.
“A great job by Oscar and Max today, but a good day for us in P2 and P3,” Norris said. “It is tricky to put everything together around the lap and the smallest mistake can cost a lot of lap time. It is still a good day and I am happy.”
Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc edged the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez to fourth position with teammate Carlos Sainz rounding out the top six positions.
A front-row start is key at Suzuka. The winner has only come from behind the front row once in the past 12 races when Valtteri Bottas won from third in 2019.
Mercedes had to settle for seventh and eighth in qualifying, with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton ahead of George Russell.
AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda of Japan gave the home country fans a thrill when he finished ninth while Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso completed the top 10.
Logan Sargeant lost control of his car on the final corner on his first run in qualifying, crashing into the wall which brought out a red flag.
Sergeant got out of his car and walked away but the timing couldn’t have been worse as he is fighting to retain his seat at Williams for the 2024 season. He will start last on Sunday.
ALPHA TAURI 2024 LINEUP
Tsunoda and Australian Daniel Ricciardo will form AlphaTauri’s lineup for 2024, the team announced on Saturday.
The 23-year-old Tsunoda, who made his debut for the team in 2021, has struggled this season and has only three points. But the team said it was impressed with his “natural talent” and “constant improvement.”
Ricciardo is currently on the sidelines with a broken hand but the eight-time Grand Prix winner impressed the team when he raced for them in Hungary and Belgium before the summer break.
New Zealander Liam Lawson, who is currently filling in for Ricciardo, will be a reserve driver next year.
“Obviously, I’ll push as much as possible for the rest of the season and beyond to progress as a driver,” Tsunoda said. “I’m grateful for Red Bull and Honda for continuing to support and believe in me, and very happy and thankful to continue the partnership.”