Leclerc secures Singapore GP pole in tricky conditions
Charles Leclerc mastered the conditions at the Marina Bay circuit to take his ninth pole position of the season, as championship leader Max Verstappen was forced to abort his final lap.
On a weekend where he can secure the championship, Verstappen will only start eighth, with the Dutch driver furious after being forced to abandon a potential pole lap due to a lack of fuel. His teammate, Sergio Perez, will start in second place, with Lewis Hamilton securing his best qualifying of the season in third.
The session started in damp conditions, with drivers using the intermediate tyres after a wet FP3. The majority of the track seemed to be dry, with turns 8 and 17 proving to be stubbornly wet throughout the session. Despite struggling with tyre warmup in practice, Mercedes were instantly on the pace, with Hamilton and Russell setting the fastest times early in the session. Unsurprisingly, there was a multitude of yellow flags early on, as Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc and the Haas duo of Kevin Magnussen and Mick Schumacher struggled with the greasy conditions.
On their second set of tyres, however, both Haas were able to briefly get inside the top 10 – showing how much the track was improving. In the end, Schumacher needed one final lap to get through to Q2, with Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon, Albon and Nicolas Latifi dropping out.
Despite hot temperatures in Singapore, the track was slow to dry thanks to the high humidity and the nighttime running. Times were improving in Q2, with Leclerc setting the early pace in this session. Aston Martin decided it was worth a gamble to put both cars onto the slick tyres, but both drivers found the conditions too tricky to handle, as both skated into the run-off at the Anderson Bridge. Lance Stroll qualified 12th, with Sebastian Vettel 14th at the track where he secured his last victory three years ago.
Zhou Guanyu struggled on slicks as well to qualify 15th, with fellow Singapore newbie Schumacher qualifying 12th. The big shock in this session was the loss of George Russell, with the Mercedes man never looking comfortable throughout the session, as he missed out on the top 10 for the first time since the Miami GP. The Brit will start tomorrow from 11th.
The majority of the field chose soft tyres in Q3, apart from Tsunoda and Magnussen who stuck with the intermediates. This briefly looked like the best call, as the majority of the slick-shod runners struggled to get their tyres up to temperature. All except Lewis Hamilton, who was two seconds faster than the next soft tyre runner after the first laps in qualifying. Staying out on the circuit to keep the temperature in the tyres was the best tactic, as Leclerc, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso traded times at the top of the order.
Leclerc managed to set a 1:49.412 on his penultimate run in qualifying, a time which would not be bettered. Perez and Hamilton both came close, but it was Verstappen who twice looked as though he was on the way to taking his fifth pole position of the season. Despite a lap which looked scruffy at times, he was nearly a second up on Leclerc’s time before being told by the team to box immediately, a decision which infuriated the championship leader. This was after he had backed off on a previous lap which would also have been good enough to challenge for the front two rows of the grid. It is likely that continuing on his final run would have led him to run out of fuel, meaning the Dutchman would have been unable to provide a fuel sample, thus starting from the back of the grid.
The end result of this qualifying session is that Verstappen needs a crazy race tomorrow if he is to secure the championship with five rounds to go, on what has been a difficult weekend for Red Bull as both themselves and Aston Martin have been accused of breaching cost cap regulations.
Verstappen has won from lower than eighth though in two of the last four races, however, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take his twelfth victory of the season and move one step closer to a second successive championship tomorrow.