Red Bull's triple Formula One world champion Max Verstappen beat the weather as well as his rivals to secure pole position for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix in a qualifying session halted by what he called “insane” conditions at Interlagos on Friday.
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc joined Verstappen on the front row with the Aston Martins of Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso third and fourth.
Verstappen was quick out of the pits as storm clouds loomed, getting a flying lap in to secure provisional pole before gusting winds, rain and flashes of lightning halted the track action.
“We didn’t know when it would hit in qualifying, we thought it would hit. This is of course insane weather,” said the 26-year-old, who secured his third title in Qatar last month and now has 11 poles for the season.
Verstappen, who will be chasing his record-extending 17th win of the season on Sunday and 52nd of his career, wasted no time at the start of the final phase and passed the Mercedes of last year's winner George Russell in the pitlane exit.
Leclerc, who had been on pole for the two previous races, was 0.294 slower.
“In my own career I have never experienced something like that. From Turn Four onwards there was no rain but the car was extremely difficult to drive, no grip,” said the Monegasque.
“I was thinking about just coming in at the end of the lap but then I finished and then P2. So it's a really good surprise. It's a very weird one for everyone out on track today.”
Stroll, who will be starting in the top three for only the fourth time in his career, said it had been a really tricky session.
“We were fortunate with the rain that came in, we got our lap in early,” said the Canadian.
The governing FIA stopped the clock with four minutes remaining, after McLaren's Oscar Piastri had slid off, and said the session would not be restarted.
Ironically, qualifying had been delayed by 15 minutes – enough time to beat the cloudburst – to allow the track to be cleaned.
Mercedes' seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton qualified fifth with Russell initially sixth but later demoted two positions for impeding.
That lifted McLaren's Lando Norris to sixth, with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz seventh.
“I did the best I could, hopefully we'll have a better race,” said Hamilton. Russell, now set to start eighth, said the conditions were “absolutely crazy”.
“I've never, ever seen a change of weather so drastic as that,” said the Briton. “I was just sliding around, I had no grip … I actually wanted to pit because I was confident I was going to be last.”
Norris had been fastest in the second phase and looking like a pole contender.
“Pretty gutted,” said the Briton. “I don't know what to feel about it. I think the car was amazing, it came alive a lot in qualifying. Easily good enough to be quickest, I'd say … not a lot we could have done.”
Red Bull's Sergio Perez, battling Hamilton for second overall in the championship but only 20 points ahead, was forced to slow on his lap after Piastri went off and qualified ninth.
“We were just incredibly unlucky today,” said the Mexican. “We should have been on the front row.”
Piastri, 10th, said he had just lost a lot of grip as the rain began to fall.
“It's been a good day in terms of pace, just obviously this weather's thrown a spanner in the works,” he said.
Alpine's Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly were also handed two place drops for impeding after qualifying 12th and 13th respectively.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo, fourth on the grid for AlphaTauri at the previous race in Mexico, qualified only 17th this time.
Interlagos is hosting F1's final sprint weekend of the season, with Sunday's grand prix grid set on Friday while Saturday's schedule features a sprint qualifying 'shoot-out' followed by a stand-alone 100km race.