Leclerc takes Singapore GP pole as Verstappen aborts lap

SINGAPORE (AP): Max Verstappen looked on course for pole position at the Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday when his Red Bull team aborted his lap with just seconds left in qualifying and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole instead.

“Why? Why? Why?” Verstappen asked when told to box, before unleashing an expletive. “What is this about?” Verstappen starts eighth, although he’s won from 14th on the grid this season in Belgium.

He was well clear of Leclerc at the time splits but it could have been a good call from Red Bull if it turns out he was about to go under fuel limit regulations, one possible explanation for the decision. Drivers can be disqualified if they don’t have enough fuel left in the tank.

Leclerc clinched a season-leading ninth pole and finished .022 ahead of Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez and .054 clear of Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton. “It was incredibly close, a really exciting session,” said Hamilton, who has a record 103 career poles but none this year. “A really clean qualifying session. It was so difficult to get that lap perfect.”

Perez is confident he can challenge for victory.

“It’s an opportunity tomorrow from the start to attack Charles and I’ll go for the win,” Perez said. “It’s quite disappointing to miss out by two hundredths but at the end of the day I think they did a fantastic job. Very happy.”

But Verstappen’s grid position deals a blow to his chances of wrapping up the title on Sunday on a street track difficult for overtaking. That gives Leclerc a good chance to win his fourth race of the season.

“I thought we wouldn’t get pole but it paid off and I’m really happy,” Leclerc said. “It was really, really special, every qualifying in street tracks are super on the limit.” Leclerc called it “a matter of time before Max gets his title.”

Verstappen leads Leclerc by 116 points and will clinch his second straight title only if he scores 22 points more than Leclerc, his most realistic challenger. He must win to secure the title Sunday, along with two other scenarios involving Leclerc. If Verstappen wins, Leclerc can finish no higher than ninth; if Verstappen wins and earns a bonus point for fastest lap, Leclerc can finish no higher than eighth.

The race buildup has seen bickering between teams over an alleged 2021 budget cap breach by Red Bull, which drew an angry response from Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. Also, Hamilton was summoned to appear before the stewards for a potential jewelry breach shortly after third practice had ended at the Marina Bay Circuit.

The seven-time F1 champion was being investigated for an alleged infringement of Appendix L, Chapter III of the FIA’s International Sporting Code, which includes a prohibition on the wearing of jewelry. The summons appeared related to Hamilton’s nose stud, which he had previously removed when the FIA’s jewelry ban was applied. Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso starts behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. and from fifth place in his record 350th F1 race on Sunday, which will be one more than 2007 F1 champion Kimi Raikkonen.