Verstappen on pole but grid penalty looms

FORMULA 1: Max Verstappen will start the Japanese Grand Prix from pole position pending an investigation by the stewards into erratic and dangerous driving in a frightening near-collision with Lando Norris.

Dutch Red Bull driver Max Verstappen waves to the fans. Photo: AFP

Verstappen was rolling slowly on the outside of the lightning-fast 130R corner when Norris closed in at knots speed.

Caught off guard, Verstappen attempted to join the racing line but lost control of the car and swerved past the McLaren, which was forced onto the grass to avoid a crash.

The two drivers were able to continue their laps, but the marshals have opened an investigation which will be carried out after qualifying.

Norris accused Verstappen of trying to stop him from getting ahead on track with an awkward blocking move and called on the championship leader to serve a penalty.

“It was clear he tried to do this,” he told British television. “Doing what he did is something you can’t do.”

But Verstappen accused the Briton of breaking an agreement between drivers not to overtake in the last sector of a track before starting a qualifying lap.

“If he just had a little more respect for me – because everyone’s queuing up anyway and I don’t think anybody’s trying to get through that last chicane, so by trying to pass me you’re creating this kind of thing,” he said. .

It was a bitter end to a solid qualifying hour for Verstappen, who had good command of the terrain until he lost some of his bodywork on his final flying lap.

He had held a quarter-second lead over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc after their first few races, but could not improve when a lead from his floor broke free from his car over the curbs, opening the door to Leclerc and his Ferrari teammate Carlos Sainz to snatch the best corner.

Both have improved but are woefully short of the Dutchman’s benchmark, with Leclerc just 0.01 seconds short and Sainz just 0.057 seconds behind.

Verstappen can win the championship this weekend if he wins the race with the fastest lap or with Leclerc and Perez third or lower.

“I’m very happy to be on pole but also in general super happy to be here,” he said. “I’m quite confident that we have a good car. I’m excited for tomorrow.

Leclerc said he hoped the mixed conditions predicted for Sunday could tip the race in his favor from the front row.

“It’s so close to everyone, so that’s good,” he said of his car’s pace against the Red Bull Racing car. “The feelings were good with the car.

“Let’s wait to see the conditions. It looks like there is going to be some rain somewhere in the race. It should be a fun race.

Sainz was optimistic Ferrari was a real chance in the race to prevent Verstappen from winning the title this weekend.

“I think there are a lot of things that could happen tomorrow,” he said. “There is also a great opportunity to start in P3.

“I think we are in a good position to fight Max tomorrow.”

Sergio Perez qualified fourth and 0.4 seconds slower than his teammate on pole position.

Esteban Ocon was outstanding in fifth, beating Lewis Hamilton instead by 0.2 seconds.

Fernando Alonso followed ahead of George Russell, with Sebastian Vettel a superb ninth, 10 places ahead of team-mate Lance Stroll.

Lando Norris finished 10th ahead of McLaren teammate Daniel Ricciardo, missing the top 10 in shots on goal by just 0.003 seconds. Valtteri Bottas will start alongside him on the sixth row of the grid.

Yuki Tsunoda will start his first home Grand Prix from 13th after struggling with brake issues throughout qualifying, with Zhou Guanyu in 14th and Mick Schumacher 15th.

Thai driver Alex Albon was propelled to a place in Q2 by just 0.055 seconds, leaving him 16th on the grid.

Pierre Gasly, after announcing a switch to Alpine in 2023 next year, qualified 17th with brake problems, the Frenchman blasting his team over the radio after locking himself out at the hairpin.

Kevin Magnussen qualified 18th ahead of Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi on the back row of the grid.

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