By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) – Formula One championship leader Charles Leclerc took pole position for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix ahead of Ferrari team mate Carlos Sainz in a front row lockout in qualifying on Saturday.
The pole was the Monegasque’s third in five races this season, and 12th of his career as well as the first time Ferrari had secured the top two grid positions since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix.
Formula One world champion Max Verstappen qualified third for Red Bull, after looking like he would take the top slot with the fastest first flying lap. Mexican team mate Sergio Perez was fourth.
“The last weekend hasn’t been great for me. I made a mistake in the race but today went well,” said Leclerc, who finished only sixth after a late spin in Ferrari’s home race at Imola in April.
“We are starting on pole and we need to finish the job tomorrow. They (Red Bull) are extremely quick in the straight lines, we are quick in the corners. It will be a tight challenge tomorrow,” added the 24-year- old.
Sainz’s front row slot, 0.190 of a second slower than Leclerc’s time of one minute 28.796 seconds, marked a strong return after the Spaniard crashed in Friday practice.
“I haven’t done any long runs yet… so tomorrow will be the first time to have a feel,” said Sainz.
“It could be quite challenging but at the same time I am feeling confident with the car, the car is really good to drive around here so I think we can do a good job.”
Verstappen was 0.195 off the pole — and 0.005 off the front row — after having to slow on his final attempt when he pushed a bit too hard.
Any disappointment was tempered by the fact he did only a handful of timed laps on Friday before being sidelined by an hydraulics problem.
“Actually to be that competitive in qualifying, I was a bit surprised,” said the Dutch driver, who is 27 points behind Leclerc in the championship.
“We have a good chance for tomorrow. We have good top speed. I think the car is handling quite well so I’m looking forward to that.”
But the Dutchman could not hide his frustration at his limited practice time.
“It’s just been incredibly messy… we just make it super difficult for ourselves,” he told reporters.
“Of course (I am) still pleased to be in third position and to actually be very close to the (Ferrari) guys but I think we can do so much better. Just actually operate a bit cleaner and smoother,” he said.
Valtteri Bottas qualified fifth for Alfa Romeo with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton sixth for Mercedes, who had George Russell back in 12th.
It was another disappointing session for struggling Mercedes who had shown some signs of progress in Friday’s sessions.
“We were able to put it in a sweet spot and today in P3 we were completely off with the experiments we did,” said team principal Toto Wolff.
“It creeped a little bit off but it was still bouncing like a kangaroo. The drivers are not happy with it and you can see that is the reason we are off,” he added.
Hamilton said it was obvious the team had a long way to go to get back to competing at the front of the grid.
“We’ll keep on chipping away, keep working at it. So much amazing work is going on in the background and everyone is working so hard. Unfortunately I don’t think we are necessarily moving forwards at the rate we would like to,” he said.
“That gap is similar to the beginning of the year, I think. We have just got to keep our heads down, keep working, keep focused and keep trundling. Eventually we will get there,” he said.
Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda start seventh and ninth respectively for AlphaTauri with Lando Norris sandwiched between them for McLaren. Canadian Lance Stroll qualified his Aston Martin 10th.
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon did not take part in qualifying after crashing in final practice.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar and David Gregorio)