Charles Leclerc took pole position in a Ferrari front-row lockout at the Mexican Grand Prix, with the Scuderia finding a huge amount of pace in Q3 to beat Max Verstappen into third place.
Daniel Ricciardo will line up fourth in his AlphaTauri, ahead of home hero Sergio Perez in the sister Red Bull to round out the top five.
A swathe of investigations took place after the session, though the likes of Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell avoided penalties.
Lando Norris out in Q1 with multiple investigations sparked
With the pace shown by Verstappen, topping all three practice sessions, he was naturally favourite for pole, but Alex Albon put himself in the top three in two of those three sessions, raising hopes that he could potentially be in the mix to reach the final part of qualifying for Williams.
And given how closely matched the drivers were, most opted to go straight onto the soft compound tyres in Q1 to get themselves on the board early on.
Track evolution was high throughout the session too, with lap times continually improving. Yuki Tsunoda played the team game for AlphaTauri, offering Daniel Ricciardo a tow down the 1.2 kilometre start/finish straight with the knowledge that he will start at the back of the grid, having taken a full power unit change ahead of the weekend – a delayed consequence of his engine failure at Monza in September.
A huge queue at the end of the pit lane emerged as the drivers searched for space heading out on track for their final runs, but after going early, a mistake from Lando Norris midway through the lap left him in 19th and needing to complete a second lap on his soft tyres.
But an ill-timed yellow flag came out after Fernando Alonso spun his Aston Martin on the exit of Turn 3, scuppering many flying laps in the process, including Norris, who was made to pay for his earlier mistake and qualified 19th on Saturday.
Lance Stroll, Esteban Ocon, Sargeant and Kevin Magnussen were the other drivers to fall at the Q1 hurdle in a frantic end to the first part of Mexican Grand Prix qualifying, with two more sessions to come.
But that queue at the end of the pit lane prompted several investigations, with Verstappen, George Russell and Fernando Alonso all placed under investigation by the stewards for possible impeding in the pit lane, while Lewis Hamilton was also placed under investigation for failing to slow under yellow flags, with Sargeant and Tsunoda investigated for allegedly overtaking under yellow flag conditions.
Despite his practice pace, Albon complained his Williams felt like a “completely different car” during qualifying, suffering with oversteer and brake locking during the session.
The end of Q2 saw another flurry of drivers look to exit the pit lane at the same time, with further queuing taking place – albeit not quite as severe as was seen in Q1, with Williams placed under investigation after Tsunoda hit one of their rear jacks when leaving his garage.
The main objective remained on track however, with Alonso knocked out at the Q2 hurdle for Aston Martin, Albon squeezed through into Q3 by knocking out Zhou Guanyu, with Pierre Gasly and Nico Hulkenberg also falling.
Tsunoda did not set a representative lap time in the session in helping Ricciardo, who ranked fourth quickest in Q2, only a tenth behind Hamilton, Verstappen and Russell – in what looked set up to be a hugely competitive Q3 session.
Charles Leclerc takes pole in frantic Mexican Grand Prix qualifying
But after Q2, Albon’s lap time was deleted for track limits – promoting Zhou back into the top 10 shootout in a breathless qualifying hour at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.
The first runs saw Verstappen go half a second faster than team-mate Perez, albeit with Perez on used tyres compared to new tyres for Verstappen – with Ricciardo splitting the two Red Bull drivers in an AlphaTauri.
But out of seemingly nowhere, given they had not been on the pace all weekend, both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz beat Verstappen on their first runs.
This gave the Scuderia hope of a shock pole in Mexico City, but there was still one more run to come in Q3.
Neither Ferrari could improve on their final runs, leaving the door open to the chasing pack to try and overhaul them – with Ricciardo also unable to improve.
Perez set a personal best lap, but he could not topple Ricciardo in his AlphaTauri, before Verstappen crossed the line and could not beat the Ferrari duo either.
The Mercedes pair were the last to have a try, but Russell could not beat eighth, and Hamilton could not go faster than sixth, with Ferrari pulling off the shock of the day with Leclerc earning a superb pole position in Mexico City.
Mexican Grand Prix 2023: Qualifying classification
1 Charles LECLERC Ferrari 1:17.166
2 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.067
3 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull +0.097
4 Daniel RICCIARDO AlphaTauri +0.216
5 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull +0.257
6 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.288
7 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren +0.457
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +0.508
9 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +0.866
10 Guanyu ZHOU Alfa Romeo +0.884
11 Pierre GASLY Alpine 1:18.521
12 Nico HULKENBERG Haas +0.003
13 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +0.217
14 Alexander ALBON Williams +0.626
15 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri NO TIME
16 Esteban OCON Alpine 1:19.080
17 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas +0.083
18 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +0.147
19 Lando NORRIS McLaren +2.474
20 Logan SARGEANT Williams NO TIME