MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Charles Leclerc took pole position for Ferrari in crash-laden qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday, pipping Red Bull’s world champion Max Verstappen on the upgraded Albert Park circuit.
Leclerc saved his best for last, his flying lap of one minute 17.868 seconds nearly three-tenths of a second quicker than Verstappen, leaving the Dutchman in a funk over the performance of his RB18 car.
Verstappen finished ahead of third-quickest team mate Sergio Perez, with McLaren’s Lando Norris to start fourth on the grid.
Leclerc’s 11th career pole and second of the season set up another Sunday showdown with Verstappen, the pair’s rivalry having dominated the early races.
Leclerc said he managed to “put everything together” in the third and final phase of qualifying.
“The car is nice to drive … We were again quite surprised by our pace in qualifying,” said the Monegasque.
“We are again very close with Red Bull. So it’s going to be close racing tomorrow.”
The Ferrari driver was summoned by the stewards for “driving unnecessarily slowly” on an in-lap but no action was taken. Leclerc and the team explained that the lap was meant to be a cool-down lap and not an in-lap before they changed their mind.
Verstappen said he was having a “terrible” weekend, struggling with balance.
“I didn’t really feel good in the car the whole weekend so far…. Of course second is still a good result,” he added.
“As a team we want more.”
Perez’s grid position was in some doubt after he was summoned for allegedly failing to slow down when a yellow flag came out, but the stewards reviewed the evidence and concluded that he was in the clear.
Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton, whose run of six consecutive poles at Albert Park was broken, will start fifth ahead of sixth-placed team mate George Russell in an encouraging session for Mercedes, who have struggled this season with a bouncy car.
However, they may end up battling McLaren to be the “best of the rest” after Ferrari and Red Bull.
McLaren’s home hero Daniel Ricciardo will start seventh on the grid ahead of Alpine’s eighth-placed Esteban Ocon.
It was a tough afternoon for many of the drivers, with two red flags from big crashes and the sun low in the sky, impairing vision in the second phase of qualifying.
Adding to complications, race officials decided to remove one of the track’s four DRS zones, which encourage over-taking, due to safety reasons after reviewing Friday’s practice.
Twice world champion Fernando Alonso crashed out at the start of the final phase of qualifying, thudding his Alpine car into the wall at turn 11.
“I lost the hydraulics and couldn’t change gear,” he lamented on the team radio before his car was hauled off track by a crane.
Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll collided with Williams’s Nicholas Latifi at turn five in the first phase, putting both Canadians out of action.
Latifi, who has now crashed in three of the last four race weekends, tried to overtake Stroll after letting him pass but ending up ploughing into him as Stroll veered to the right.
Stroll raged in an expletive-laden rant on the team radio, but race stewards found him mostly responsible for the crash, dropping him three grid positions and handing him a two-point penalty.
He and team mate Sebastian Vettel earlier crashed out in the final practice session on Saturday.
Stroll’s qualifying mishap gave his team extra time to fix Vettel’s car, and the four-times world champion finally emerged with two minutes left to post the second-slowest lap.
Vettel was 17th-fastest and the German was knocked out of the first phase along with Stroll, Williams’ Alex Albon and Latifi, and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen.
Albon, who qualified 16th, was disqualified as his car had insufficient fuel to extract the required one litre sample after the session, but the stewards later said he would be allowed to start the race on Sunday.
The Thai driver, who already has a three-place grid penalty from the last race in Jeddah, had been asked to pull over by the side of the track by his race engineer at the end of the first session.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne, additional reporting by Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Michael Perry and Hugh Lawson)