Max Verstappen produced a stunning final sector to pip Fernando Alonso and take his first ever Monaco Grand Prix pole position in a thrilling qualifying session on Saturday.
In what was a dramatic hour from start to finish, it had looked as though the Aston Martin driver could have been on for his first P1 start since 2012, sitting top of the pile in the closing stages of Q3 – and Verstappen had been two tenths down on Alonso’s benchmark on his final flying lap, but a sterling final part of his lap saw him pip his fellow two-time World Champion to pole for Sunday’s race.
Charles Leclerc was set to line up third after narrowly missing out on his third home pole in a row, but he was later hit with a three-place grid drop for impeding Lando Norris during Q3.
That means Alpine’s Esteban Ocon will start an impressive third after a superb lap in his upgraded A523 on Saturday afternoon, joined by Carlos Sainz on the second row.
Lewis Hamilton and Leclerc will form the third row, with Pierre Gasly, George Russell, Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris rounding out the top 10.
It was a mixed day overall for Red Bull, however, with Sergio Perez set to line up last on the grid after a heavy crash in Q1 knocked him out of the session altogether.
With Saturday in Monaco being one of the standout days of the season, all eyes were on a sunny Monte Carlo as the drivers geared up for one of the most unique challenges the sport has to offer, in trying to push the limits around the tightest circuit on the calendar.
But Q1 would provide a different kind of worry for the drivers, not least the queues to get going on a flying lap with all 20 cars wanting to get times on the board, but with the penultimate corner of Rascasse proving to be a pinch point, fast cars coming across slower ones is always a risk around Monaco.
The Aston Martin duo were hopeful of being in the fight for pole ahead of the weekend, and Alonso and Lance Stroll lapping only a tenth behind Verstappen’s opening gambit was a sign that they were right in the fight from the off in qualifying.
But the red flag was out just seven minutes in when last year’s polesitter and race winner Perez was out of the session altogether, carrying too much speed into the first corner at Sainte Devote, with the rear stepping out on him and suffering a big impact on his car. He was able to climb out of his car unscathed, but his Red Bull was too damaged to continue.
Just like Lewis Hamilton’s car after his crash in FP3, Perez had his car airlifted to safety by crane, which will have given their rivals an unencumbered view of the underside of the RB19 – just to add insult to proverbial injury for the team.
Track evolution was playing a huge part in Q1 when the session restarted, with Perez quickly dropping down to last and the likes of Hamilton and Carlos Sainz, who had been impressive in practice on Friday, were far from safe heading into their final runs of the first part of qualifying.
Hamilton had to abort a flying lap on fresh tyres as he locked up and cut the Nouvelle Chicane, while Sainz had a tight cut-off to reach the line to set a time, and both breathed a sigh of relief as they just about made their way through to Q2.
Logan Sargeant, Kevin Magnussen, Nico Hulkenberg and Zhou Guanyu were the ones to fall alongside Perez in what was a frantic, tight Q1 session.
Onwards to Q2 and the lap times began to fall even further, with both Alpine drivers mixing it among Verstappen and Alonso at the head of the field in their initial runs, while the McLarens of Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri were also in close quarters.
Esteban Ocon brushed the wall on the exit of Sainte Devote as he searched for every extra millimetre he could around Monte Carlo, with the drivers looking to book their place in the top 1o.
Hamilton could only put himself 10th with one more run to be done and worried there was an issue with his right-rear suspension on his W14, but Norris damaged his McLaren shortly afterwards by colliding with the barriers on the exit of the Nouvelle Chicane, before hitting the wall on the outside of the right-hander at Tabac. He was able to make his way back round to the garage, but he was unable to get back out again in Q2.
Norris’ team-mate Piastri was unable to overhaul his team-mate, who sat just 0.018s behind come session’s end, and Nyck de Vries, Alex Albon, Stroll – who was noted for missing the weighbridge by the FIA coming into the pit lane – and Valtteri Bottas were all knocked out in Q2.
But onto Q3, where pole would be decided, and around Monaco, it can make all the difference.
Verstappen’s 1:12.1 was slower than his Q2 effort and was duly jumped by Alonso, Sainz and Leclerc – all three of which lapped within just 0.053s of each other.
Alonso was P1 at that point and when informed of his position, he responded on team radio that “I’m pushing like an animal”, which is what he would need to do if he wanted a first pole position since the 2012 German Grand Prix.
Despite the damage on his car, the McLaren mechanics did a sterling job to turn Norris’ car around and repair it in time for him to get involved in the session too – halving the usual repair time on the front-right corner of his car in order to do so.
Into the final five minutes, it was Verstappen who put himself fastest – just 0.052s ahead of Alonso at the top with the fastest final sector of anyone.
Hamilton, who struggled for pace for much of the session, went third, before Ocon jumped ahead of everybody and went a tenth faster than even Verstappen in a stunning effort from the Alpine driver, clocking a 1:11.553.
Into the final two minutes, only 0.206s covered the top six drivers in qualifying – exactly what Saturdays in Monaco should be about, as the drivers got ready for their final cracks at pole.
Ocon was pipped by Leclerc, who was in search of his third consecutive Monaco pole, before Alonso went even faster still than the Ferrari driver.
Verstappen was two tenths down on Alonso through the first two sectors on his final flying lap, but pulled out a superb final part of his lap to take pole position for the Monaco Grand Prix in what was a scintillating qualifying session.
Monaco Grand Prix 2023 qualifying classification
1 Max VERSTAPPEN Red Bull 1:11.365
2 Fernando ALONSO Aston Martin +0.084
3 Charles LECLERC Ferrari +0.106
4 Esteban OCON Alpine +0.188
5 Carlos SAINZ Ferrari +0.265
6 Lewis HAMILTON Mercedes +0.360
7 Pierre GASLY Alpine +0.568
8 George RUSSELL Mercedes +0.599
9 Yuki TSUNODA AlphaTauri +0.717
10 Lando NORRIS McLaren +0.889
11 Oscar PIASTRI McLaren 1:12.395
12 Nyck DE VRIES AlphaTauri +0.033
13 Alexander ALBON Williams +0.132
14 Lance STROLL Aston Martin +0.228
15 Valtteri BOTTAS Alfa Romeo +0.230
16 Logan SARGEANT Williams 1:13.113
17 Kevin MAGNUSSEN Haas +0.157
18 Nico HULKENBERG Haas +0.166
19 ZHOU Guanyu Alfa Romeo +0.410
20 Sergio PEREZ Red Bull +0.737
Click here for the starting grid for the 2023 Monaco Grand Prix.