Max Verstappen has stormed to pole for the Japanese Grand Prix, in an apparent resetting of the form book after missing out in Singapore.
The Red Bull driver went almost six tenths clear of everybody else in Q3, with Verstappen set to be joined by Oscar Piastri on the front row on the young Australian’s first ever visit to Suzuka.
Lando Norris will line up third on Sunday, with Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz set to round out the top five on the grid.
Logan Sargeant crashes out in Q1, Lance Stroll also drops out
As was made clear throughout all three practice sessions, Verstappen headed into qualifying with the bit between his teeth – finishing well clear of everyone else and his 1:29.878 in Q1 was some eight tenths clear of team-mate Sergio Perez on his first run.
Lando Norris was able to go within two tenths of the Red Bull driver, however, showing that McLaren’s pace from FP3 at Suzuka was no fluke and potentially the team’s biggest challengers on Saturday.
But halfway through Q1, the red flag was out. Logan Sargeant put the throttle down coming out of the final chicane and suffered a twitch of oversteer, and the Williams driver kept his foot pinned to the floor as he looked to complete his lap.
But in doing so, he went out onto the grass and lost control of his car, slamming into the barrier at speed and, thankfully, he was able to climb out of his car and walk away – though that now comes at a cost of Williams being left with a lengthy repair job on his car overnight.
The session got back underway again once Sargeant’s car was cleared away, with an FIA note stating that Charles Leclerc, Zhou Guanyu and Valtteri Bottas were all noted for allegedly not adhering to the minimum lap time between Safety Car lines, which may lead to punishment further down the line.
The cooling in air temperatures as the session progressed led to significant improvement across the board as the drivers scrambled to get out of Q1, with Liam Lawson setting a time good enough for fourth come session’s end.
Fernando Alonso was only down in 14th, but Aston Martin team-mate Lance Stroll dropped out altogether when Alex Albon’s Williams crossed the line, which also dropped Bottas into the bottom five.
Nico Hulkenberg, so often a qualifying specialist this year, also fell out in Q1, along with Zhou, who had a lap time deleted for a track limits violation on the exit of Degner 2.
Both Alpines miss out on top 10, Fernando Alonso scrapes through
The track continued to evolve as Q2 began, with a 1:29.964 from Verstappen on used tyres being a strikingly similar time to his Q1 effort on new rubber – hinting at plenty of time to come yet from the Red Bull driver.
But Oscar Piastri showed an impressive turn of speed in his McLaren, having never driven at Suzuka before the race weekend, going just 0.158s behind Verstappen in Q2 and ahead of Norris and Sergio Perez.
It looked to be a tight battle heating up before the final runs to make it into Q3, with the Mercedes duo, Alonso, both Alpine drivers and Albon all in close proximity in the timings to try and break into the top 1o.
But there was apparent trouble for Piastri, who pulled into the slow lane in the pit lane with only a couple of minutes to go – but it was a call from the McLaren pit wall to abandon a second run in the session, to save an extra set of tyres for Q3.
On track, the fight to get into Q3 intensified – and Alonso found himself on the cusp of elimination when George Russell leapfrogged him after improving his best lap time.
Pierre Gasly needed to improve in the final sector to knock out the two-time World Champion, but could not quite manage it and could only make it to 12th in the standings.
Only 0.725s separated all 15 remaining drivers in Q2, and Liam Lawson agonisingly missed out on another Q3 appearance, but Alonso will have breathed a sigh of relief to make it through to the top 10 come the end of that session.
But on the other side of the AlphaTauri garage, fresh from signing his new contract with the team, Yuki Tsunoda gave his home support something to cheer by making it through to Q3.
Max Verstappen storms to Japanese Grand Prix pole
And when Q3 started, all eyes were on Verstappen to see what kind of gauntlet he would lay down on new tyres – a 1:29.012 was the time, some eight tenths faster than his previous best from qualifying and four tenths faster than Piastri in second.
Team-mate Perez was on used tyres for his first attempt, but he had a 1.4-second gap to his Red Bull colleague after the first run of Q3.
But that would be immaterial until the final runs took place, with Verstappen improving further still – a 1:28.877 being the new benchmark for others to beat.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz could not get to within half a second of Verstappen, neither McLaren driver could improve, and both Mercedes drivers were over a second behind the Red Bull driver.
However you want to cut it, a quite dominant qualifying performance from the Dutchman on Saturday.
Qualifying classification: 2023 Japanese Grand Prix
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull 1:28.877
2 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +0.581
3 Lando NORRIS McLaren +0.616
4 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +0.665
5 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull +0.773
6 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.973
7 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +1.031
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +1.342
9 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +1.426
10 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +1.683
11 Liam LAWSON AlphaTauri 1:30.508
12 Pierre GASLY Alpine +0.001
13 Alexander ALBON Williams +0.029
14 Esteban OCON Alpine +0.078
15 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas +0.157
16 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo 1:31.049
17 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +0.132
18 Nico HULKENBERG Haas +0.250
19 ZHOU Guanyu Alfa Romeo +0.349
20 Logan SARGEANT Williams NO TIME SET