Verstappen claims pole position for sprint race at Imola

First meeting of the season to host the sprint race format that F1 trialled last year

Max Verstappen claimed pole position for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix sprint race at Imola. The Red Bull driver beat Ferrari's Charles Leclerc into second and McLaren's Lando Norris into third.

Verstappen put in a good run in treacherous wet conditions to take the top spot for today’s sprint race which will in turn decide pole position for tomorrow’s Grand Prix.

Qualifying opened on a damp but drying track at the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari with heavy rain returning midway through to make for tricky conditions at the business end of the session, which was interrupted with five red flag stoppages.

Leclerc set the pace on his opening hot lap in Q3, mighty through the second and third sectors, but he was only two-hundredths clear of Verstappen with a time of 1min 28.778sec.

The drivers kept lapping as the clock ticked down and Verstappen pipped his rival with a 1:27.999 just before another red flag as Valtteri Bottas ground to a halt on track.

Verstappen’s time might have been declared void if it was decided he did not back off his pace sufficiently while passing Bottas’s car. Red Bull believe he did lift off and that the time will stand, while the stewards have taken no action.

With three minutes remaining and the rain becoming heavier a tortuously long session was brought to a suitably anticlimactic finale with another red flag as Norris went off.

Mercedes' tough times continued with Hamilton only narrowly making it into Q2 and finishing in 13th place with his teammate George Russell 11th. They were unlucky in that the rain prevented them setting better times in Q2 but they were clearly already struggling, their car suffering with a severe form of the porpoising that has afflicted them all season. It is the first time a Mercedes has not made it into Q3 since the Japanese GP in 2012.

The serious business remains however. After a final practice session today, the sprint race is set to take place at 3.30pm UK time and will not only decide the grid for tomorrow’s race but world championship points will also be awarded to the top eight finishers on a scale from eight to one. Securing the win has a genuine weight in terms of the championship.

Title fight

The pole gives Verstappen the chance to claw back points in the title fight. Leclerc currently leads on 71 points, with Russell second on 37, Sainz third on 33 and Verstappen, who has retired twice this season, back in sixth on 25.

This is the first meeting of the season to host the sprint race format that F1 trialled last year.

After what the sport considered was a successful experiment, sprint races will take place at three races this year: here, Austria and Brazil. However the format from last season has been adjusted to address it shortcomings.

The sprint races last year were largely processional with drivers unwilling to take the risk of damaging their cars with points awarded only to the top three finishers on a sliding scale from three to one. With the top eight scoring this season the hope is it will encourage competition to make up places.

However the most significant issue around the format remains unsatisfactory. Last year the fastest driver in Friday qualifying was not credited with pole position, that honour going to the winner of the Saturday sprint. Drivers and fans felt this detracted from the tradition of the driver quickest over the single-lap discipline being considered to have taken pole position.

This year F1 have decided that for statistical purposes the quickest driver on Friday will be deemed to have taken pole but the sprint race will still decide the grid for tomorrow’s grand prix and at which a driver will be on pole yet not acknowledged to have taken pole. It is a confusing muddle likely to satisfy neither drivers nor fans.

Leclerc's teammate Carlos Sainz was an early casualty, caught out in Q2, going too hard and losing the rear at the second Rivazza corner, he finished in 10th. Kevin Magnussen was fourth for Haas, Fernando Alonso fifth for Alpine and Daniel Ricciardo sixth for McLaren.

Red Bull's Sergio Pérez was seventh, Bottas eighth for Alfa Romeo and Sebastian Vettel ninth for Aston Martin. Mick Schumacher was 12th for Haas, Guanyu Zhou 14th for Alfa Romeo and Lance Stroll 15th for Aston Martin.

Alex Albon retired from Q1 after a brake disc caught fire and exploded on his Williams and he will start from the back of the grid. His teammate Nicholas Latifi was 18th. Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly were 16th and 17th for AlphaTauri, with Alpine's Esteban Ocon 19th.

– Guardian