Valtteri Bottas beat Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton to pole position in a bizarre qualifying session at the Portuguese Grand Prix.
Bottas headed Hamilton by 0.007 seconds, but Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had a faster lap ruled out for exceeding track limits.
And Hamilton set a much quicker lap in the second part of qualifying, 0.4secs faster than the eventual pole, but could not match it when it mattered.
Verstappen salvaged third with a final attempt, just under 0.2secs off Bottas.
Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez took fourth place, ahead of the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz and the improved Alpine of Esteban Ocon, for the team’s best qualifying performance of the year so far.
Ocon’s team-mate Fernando Alonso, quick on the first laps of the first session of qualifying, faded after a spin at the end of that session, and could manage only 13th on the grid.
And Daniel Ricciardo was even worse off in the McLaren, knocked out in first qualifying and 16th, with team-mate Lando Norris seventh ahead of the second Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly’s Alpha Tauri and Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin.
Why did that happen?
While the result might look familiar to followers of F1 over the last couple of years, the way it came about at Portimao was unusual in the extreme.
And it seemed a change of wind strength into the final session was enough to turn things around.
Hamilton had done a stunning lap of one minute 17.968 seconds in second qualifying, half a second clear of the field, but no one was able to get near that in the final session when it mattered.
And Bottas’ pole time was set on his first lap, as neither Mercedes driver was able to improve when they switched to the medium tyre for their final runs, even though they both preferred its feel.
They, the Red Bulls and Leclerc, though, all have the medium for the start of the race having used it to set their fastest times in second qualifying, which could be a significant advantage.
Bottas said: “It is a good feeling to be on pole. It feels like it has been a while. Qualifying has been the weak point for me in the first two races getting the tyres to work. But we have been working hard and it paid off and put me in a good position for tomorrow.
“The whole weekend it has been a so-so feeling with the soft tyre and it has been better feeling with the medium.
“The wind picked up in the last run and I couldn’t quite get the temperature in them. Starting with the medium gives us the option to go pretty much as long as we want in the first stint.”
Hamilton said: “Great job by Valtteri and by the team to end up on the front row – that was not expected this weekend.
“Not the perfect lap. But I gave it everything.”
Verstappen has been complaining of a lack of grip all weekend, a combination of a relatively hard tyre selection by Pirelli and the low-abrasion track surface, and said it had been “not a lot of fun to drive”.
He was not helped by encountering Sebastian Vettel’s Aston Martin at the final corner as he started his final lap.
He added: “Qualifying was very difficult to drive, struggling a lot with the grip. That first lap was decent but I had a bit of a moment in Turn Four and went a bit off track.
“I was confident we could improve but a car in front it disturbs you, and with the low grip and the wind it cost me a lot of lap time.”
Perez, who out-qualified Verstappen at the last race in only his second outing for Red Bull, was again impressive, just 0.144secs behind the Dutchman.
The battle behind the big two
Sainz has looked strong all weekend and he delivered in style in qualifying, out-pacing Leclerc for the first time since joining Ferrari for this season – even though the Monegasque had been faster on medium tyres in the second session than the Spaniard was on softs.
And Ocon signalled a big step forward from Alpine. The team had been at the back of the midfield in the first two races of the year but have made progress with a new floor introduced in Portugal to add to the new front wing used in Imola last time out.
He and Alonso had been closely matched through practice and the first runs in qualifying, but after a spin on his second lap in the first session, the veteran Spaniard never looked the same and he was nearly a second slower than his team-mate in the second session.
Alonso said: “We lost a lot of grip. It is a little bit annoying that we lost 0.8secs between P3 and qualifying even with less fuel in qualifying, so there is something to understand a little bit better.”
Ricciardo was disappointed to be knocked out in the first session, saying his laps were “tricky” but said: “Why we struggled to put a lap together is not so clear at the moment – 16th is grim and not a result I feel good about at all.”
George Russell was outstanding in the Williams to qualify 11th, missing out on a place in the top 10 by just 0.057secs.
But for him – as with all those just outside the top 10 – it might prove a blessing in disguise, because they can choose their start tyre, and the medium is a better race tyre than the soft, on which Sainz, Ocon, Norris, Gasly and Vettel all have to start.