Max Verstappen takes pole at Japanese GP for third year in a row

Red Bull driver becomes the first driver to take pole in the opening four races of a season since Lewis Hamilton nine years ago

Red Bull's Max Verstappen, centre, will start on pole position with teammate Sergio Perez, left, second and McLaren's Lando Norris third. EPA
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Formula One world champion Max Verstappen took pole position for a third straight year at the Japanese Grand Prix on Saturday, with Sergio Perez qualifying second to ensure a Red Bull front-row lockout.

Verstappen who set the pace with a lap of one minute 28.197 seconds, 0.066 seconds clear of Perez, becomes the first driver to take pole in the opening four races of a season since Lewis Hamilton nine years ago.

"It was very close in the end, nevertheless most importantly to be on pole. Of course you want every lap to be perfect but at a track like this it isn't always the case," said Verstappen, looking to bounce back from a mechanical issue which saw him fail to finish the race last time out in Melbourne.

McLaren's Lando Norris will start Sunday's race in third, qualifying 0.292 seconds behind Verstappen.

"We had a good car today, we could fight," said Norris. "We are trying to catch up to the Red Bulls but they are doing a good job so hats off to them."

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz, who won the last race in Australia after Verstappen's withdrawal, qualified in fourth. But his teammate Charles Leclerc was frustrated by a difficult drive which will see him start back in eighth on Sunday.

"That's the best I can do. Honestly, I don't get it" Leclerc said over the team radio towards the end of qualifying.

Sainz said the Red Bulls were operating in a different league to the rest of their field.

"I hope we can fight with them in the race because in the qualifying it was impossible," the Spaniard told the Sky Sports. "In the race it would be nice to have a fight for the podium. I think it should be an interesting battle for the podium.

"I think the Red Bulls are, unfortunately, in a different league around rougher tarmacs, medium, high speed – they are just ahead on downforce."

Leclerc, who is Verstappen's closest title rival and trails the championship leader by just four points after three rounds, admitted that he had had a bad day at the office.

"We can always improve a little bit, but like in every qualifying, if I rely on the feeling at the end of the lap I'm like 'OK, this is a good lap', and then you look at the board and you are a second off," Leclerc said.

"The positive thing, if we have to find one, is that our race pace should be stronger, but on a track like this, the qualifying position is extremely important. And today we didn't do a good job.

"I just hope we have the opportunity to overtake because on a track like this it's going to be very, very difficult to overtake, so I'll do my best."

Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso and McLaren's Oscar Piastri, celebrating his 23rd birthday, finished in fifth and sixth respectively.

Seven-time world champion Hamilton and George Russell, both of Mercedes, finished in seventh and ninth, with local hero Yuki Tsunoda getting one of the biggest cheers of the day sneaking into the final round of qualifying and starting 10th Sunday.

RB's Tsunoda once again finished ahead of his more experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo, heaping pressure on the Australian driver whose seat is at risk with the highly regarded reserve driver Liam Lawson waiting in the wings.

Alonso's Aston Martin teammate Lance Stroll also struggled and was knocked out in the first round of qualifying. He will start near the back of the grid in 16th.

Updated: April 06, 2024, 8:38 AM