SUZUKA – Runaway championship leader Max Verstappen took pole position on Saturday for the Japanese Grand Prix as he looks to take a giant stride towards a third-straight title this weekend.
The Red Bull driver topped the timesheets in dry conditions in Suzuka with a fastest time of 1min 28.877sec — 0.581sec ahead of McLaren’s Oscar Piastri.
Piastri’s teammate Lando Norris was third.
Verstappen, who leads teammate and nearest rival Sergio Perez by 151 points in the championship standings, cannot clinch the title on Sunday but a favourable result can set him up to seal the deal at the Qatar Grand Prix next month.
He is looking to bounce back from a disappointing fifth-place finish at last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix that ended his record streak of 10-straight wins.
“Incredible weekend so far, especially in qualifying when you can really push it — it felt really, really nice,” said Verstappen.
“I already felt from the preparation that we had that this was going to be a good track.
“You never really know how good it’s going to be but from lap one it’s been really nice.”
Verstappen has looked back to his dominant best this week in Suzuka, finishing fastest in all three practice sessions.
He also wasted little time in laying down a marker in qualifying, unleashing his car’s ferocious power on the high-speed Suzuka circuit.
Charles Leclerc qualified fourth ahead of Perez and Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz, who won last week in Singapore.
Mercedes pair Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were seventh and eighth, respectively.
Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda, who signed a new deal to race for AlphaTauri again next season, qualified ninth in his home grand prix, ahead of Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso.
Liam Lawson, Pierre Gasly, Alex Albon, Esteban Ocon and Kevin Magnussen were all eliminated in Q2.
The first qualifying session was red-flagged when Logan Sargeant crashed his Williams at the final corner.
The American escaped unscathed but his car sustained serious damage after hitting the grass and slamming into the barriers.
Sargeant was eliminated in Q1 along with Zhou Guanyu, Valtteri Bottas, Nico Hulkenberg and Lance Stroll.
Stroll was returning to action after missing the Singapore race following a huge crash in qualifying. – AFP