Max Verstappen has beaten Ferrari to pole at the Mexican Grand Prix despite the Dutchman appearing to ignore yellow flags on his final lap.
UPDATE: Verstappen was handed a three-place grid penalty and had two penalty points added to his superlicence for ignoring yellow flags, dropping him to fourth.
The end of qualifying was marred by a heavy crash by Valtteri Bottas exiting the final turn on his second flying lap. The Finn lost control on the kerbs, making heavy side impact against the concrete barriers before coming to a sudden stop in the Tecpro barriers in a 17G impact.
Bottas was unhurt in the smash, but double waved yellow flags — signifying for drivers to slow and prepare to stop — were waved entering the corner. Both Ferrari drivers abandoned their laps, but Verstappen stayed flat to break the track record.
Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner contested afterwards that the Dutchman wasn’t shown yellow flags when he entered the corner, but replays appeared to contradict the team boss’s opinion.
The race director didn’t immediately recommend the incident to the stewards.
“To come out on top was incredible,” Verstappen said. “We know Ferrari’s been really quick on the straight, but for us to come back and get pole position here — big thanks to the team today.
“Secretly you always hope and you always keep pushing … in Q3 that all came together.”
Having started the weekend pessimistic about his chances, Verstappen reversed his forecast for the race, predicting a path to victory thanks to his car’s impressive race pace.
“We’re going to give it all. We have a good race car anyway — even if something happens at the start and we lose a position, we’ll still be fine.”
Charles Leclerc will start alongside Verstappen on the front row for Ferrari, but the Monegasque was fortunate he and Vettel’s final laps were abandoned, having been in the middle of a scrappy final attempt that seemed likely to see him demoted to third.
“Red Bull was very quick, Max especially was extremely quick,” he said.
“The race is still long tomorrow. The start will be very important, but the top speed that we have is very good, so hopefully we can take advantage of this.”
Vettel was disappointed to have abandoned his final qualifying lap, which looked destined to be an improvement on his first attempt and put him into pole contention.
“I had a mistake on my first run so I was quite confident in the second run I could make up for it, but unfortunately it was double yellow, so I had to slow down and the lap was lost,” he said.
“I think we have the speed. The weekend had been quite good.
“Obviously we hope to have a good start and take it from there. It’s a long race.”
Lewis Hamilton qualified half a second off pole in fourth, the Briton adamant he’d extracted the maximum from his Mercedes, which has typically underperformed in Mexico.
Alex Albon qualified fifth ahead of the crashed Bottas in sixth, though the Finn may be forced to start from pit lane if the damage to his car is extensive enough to warrant a chassis change.
Hamilton can win his sixth world title this weekend if he outscores teammate Bottas by 14 points.
McLaren teammates Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris qualified seventh and eighth at the head of the midfield, leading Toro Rosso pair Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly.
Home-crowd favourite Sergio Perez qualified 11th, knocked out in Q2 by just 0.008 seconds in his Racing Point.
Renault endured a day to forget in Mexico. Nico Hulkenberg and 2018 polesitter Daniel Ricciardo set only one lap between them during morning practice thanks to cooling issues in both cars, and both were subsequently eliminated from qualifying 12th and 13th.
Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi qualified 14th and 15h as the slowest drivers of the session.
Lance Stroll was eliminated 16th for Racing Point, the Canadian complaining of a lack of grip on his way back to the pits at the end of the session. Stroll has been knocked out in Q1 at 13 of the 18 races of the season to date, and on this occasion he was 0.6 seconds slower than teammate Perez in the same session.
Haas teammates Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean qualified 17th and 18th, extending the American team’s 100 per cent run of Q1 knockouts in Mexico since its 2016 Formula One debut, the car unhappy in Mexico City’s high altitude.
Williams pair George Russell and Robert Kubica will start at the back of the grid, the former more than 2.3 seconds quicker than the latter.