Australian Daniel Ricciardo missed out on Q3 on Saturday by just 0.003 seconds in a brutal blow for the McLaren driver, who qualified 11th fastest for the Japanese Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified fastest in a time of 1min 29.304, ahead of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari.
Ricciardo looked in good shape after clocking the fifth-fastest time early in Q2, before being pipped by Sebastian Vettel by the smallest of margins.
McLaren teammate Lando Norris qualified one better in 10th after a close call with Verstappen which triggered an investigation, with Sergio Perez finishing fourth-quickest, Esteban Ocon fifth, and Lewis Hamilton sixth.
Verstappen then faced a nervous wait after stewards said they would investigate an on-track incident involving the Dutchman and McLaren’s Norris. Verstappen was given a reprimand but will remain in pole.
“It was incredible to drive here again and of course very happy to be on pole, but just super happy to be back here,” said Verstappen, whose car lost a chunk of bodywork on his last lap, after he ran wide on a section of the track.
“I lost a bit of my duct on that last lap which is why I didn’t improve. Tomorrow will be interesting with the weather.”
Fernando Alonso was seventh-fastest, while George Russell and Sebastian Vettel qualified in eighth and ninth place respectively.
Verstappen can clinch the title on Sunday if he wins the race with the fastest lap, no matter what his rivals do. The Dutchman will also retain his crown if he wins and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, his nearest challenger, is third or lower.
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Lando opens up on Ricciardo relationship | 03:13
Sainz was close behind his teammate with a time of 1min 29.361sec and said he was “fed up” of missing out on pole.
“It was a good lap, clean all the way into the last chicane but it overcooked a bit heading into the last chicane and it cost me quite a bit of lap time,” said the Spaniard.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly failed to make it past Q1 after an issue with his brakes.
The Frenchman, who announced earlier in the day that he will replace two-time world champion Alonso at Alpine next season, was furious.
“I feel we could have managed this situation a bit better,” Gasly told TV reporters.