MEXICO CITY (AP) — Ferrari's Charles Leclerc found some surprising speed on Saturday to earn the pole position for the start of Formula One's Mexico City Grand Prix.
The Italian team even earned a rare 1-2 front row lockout, with Carlos Sainz right next to him. Lurking behind, of course, is Red Bull's season champion Max Verstappen, who is still the race favorite from third.
Verstappen was cleared by race officials in a post-qualification investigation into whether he improperly delayed other car at the pit lane exit. Verstappen escaped a penalty that would have moved him further down the grid, leaving him in prime position to attack the Ferraris from the start.
“To be honest, I did not expect to be on pole position,” Leclerc said. “Now we need to convert it into the win, and obviously that will be very difficult.”
Leclerc did not do that from pole position last week at the United States Grand Prix. Verstappen charged from sixth to the victory. Leclerc faded to a sixth-place finish and was later disqualified after he and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton were penalized for a technical rules violation with their cars.
Ferrari had struggled for speed in the three practice sessions in Mexico City and figured to be in the middle of the pack until finding the quick laps at the very end.
Both Leclerc and Sainz said Verstappen, who has won four times at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez since 2017, remains the favorite to win again. But they will try to work together at the start to stay in front on him.
The previous seven races in Mexico City have seen only winner start from No. 1: Nico Rosberg in 2015, Hamilton in 2016 and Verstappen last year. The track’s exceptionally long straight into the first corner make a start from second or third the optimal position to draft and pass the front car.
Verstappen won from third in 2021 when he passed two cars at the first corner. It won't be easy to pull off the same move again, he said.
“I learned you can never repeat the same start from when I was little. You can look at it, but every year is different,” Verstappen said.
Sainz is the only non-Red Bull driver to win this season, when he won the Singapore Grand Prix. Ferrari's last win in Mexico City was in 1990 with Alain Prost.
Verstappen is chasing a record-breaking 16th victory of the season. He owns the F1 season record of 15 set last season and tied a week ago in Texas. A win would also be career No. 51, tying Prost for fourth-most in F1 history.
Verstappen's Red Bull teammate, Sergio Perez, was fifth in qualifying as he chases his third win of the season in front of a home crowd that delivers thunderous cheers every time he is on the track.
Red Bull has already won the driver and team championships this season. Perez is currently second behind Verstappen and trying to hold off Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton over the final four races of the season. Red Bull has never had its drivers finish 1-2.
“There are two goals remaining this season: One is to keep wining and two is to secure that second place,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "We came close last year ... (Perez) is in a strong position so it will be a great achievement in the season with the level of dominance that we’ve had”.
McLaren's run of four consecutive podium finishes and six in the last nine races is second only to Red Bull in that stretch. That could be in jeopardy Sunday after Oscar Piastri qualified seventh and Lando Norris was all the way back in 19th.
AlphaTauri's Daniel Ricciardo returned to racing last week in Texas after missing five races with a broken hand and finished 17th. He was in top form in qualifying on Saturday, running fourth. Ricciardo is an eight-time race winner, and started the 2018 Mexico Grand Prix on pole.
“I expected we would see the old Daniel, whom we know can win races," team principal Franz Tost said. "It looks like he is already here, on this level.”
Associated Press reporter Alejandra Zuniga in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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