Red Bull's championship leader Max Verstappen flew to pole position at the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday with Ferrari's Carlos Sainz alongside on the front row after a dramatic qualifying.

Verstappen was nearly half a second clear of the Spaniard and so good was his first lap in the final phase that he aborted the second, which was merely a protective gesture, once it became clear nobody else was going to beat him.

It might have ended up being even faster.

"The car was on rails, it was really enjoyable to drive today," said the happy Dutch driver, who took his first Formula One win at Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya in 2016 and also triumphed last year.

The pole, in a time of one minute 12.272 seconds, was the 24th of his career and came after he lapped fastest in every practice session.

"I love coming to Barcelona in general, I love the track, I love the fans, they really love racing. I have a lot of great memories here and hopefully tomorrow we can add another one," he told the crowd.

Sainz gave the fans plenty to cheer, and said he had left nothing on the table, while McLaren's Lando Norris qualified third.

"I'm surprised to be here -- P3 and almost P2," said the Briton.

Alpine's Pierre Gasly was fourth fastest but stewards handed him two three-place penalties for unnecessarily impeding Verstappen and Sainz that dropped the Frenchman to 10th.

Red Bull's Sergio Perez, Verstappen's closest title rival but 39 points behind after six races, will start 11th after a trip into the gravel while Ferrari's Charles Leclerc ended up a shock 19th on the grid.


Seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton was fifth fastest, after looking a front row contender, but will start fourth on the grid for Mercedes.

Seven different teams filled the top seven positions, with Canadian Lance Stroll promoted to fifth and ahead of eighth-placed Aston Martin team mate Fernando Alonso for the first time this season.

Alpine's Esteban Ocon, third in Monaco last Sunday, will start sixth with Haas's Nico Hulkenberg seventh and McLaren's Australian rookie Oscar Piastri ninth.

The big shock after a first phase red-flagged due to gravel on the slippery track was provided by last year's pole-sitter

Leclerc ending up on the back row.

"Unbelievable," said the Ferrari driver, usually one of the quickest over a single lap.

He later clarified the comment: "I was very surprised by the feeling, which is why I said ‘unbelievable!’. But when they told me I was out of Q1, with the car I had, I was not that surprised."

Leclerc said the car was undriveable through left-hand corners and suspected a mechanical problem.

Perez used the same word after the Mexican failed to make the cut for the top-10 shootout, having just scraped through the first phase.

Mercedes's George Russell was another casualty of the second phase, ending up 12th after also colliding with Hamilton at the end in a clash that drew the attention of the stewards, who gave a formal warning to both driver and team.

"George just backed off," said Hamilton over the radio. "That's really dangerous."

Mercedes blamed the incident on a miscommunication, with Russell apologising and Hamilton requiring a new front wing for the final phase.

Several drivers spun or ran into the gravel in a tricky opening phase that started with spits of rain and was halted with 14 minutes and 13 seconds remaining on the clock.

Alonso was one of the casualties, his Aston Martin suffering floor damage that kept his mechanics busy as the session progressed.

Rain also fell during final practice.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ed Osmond and Clare Fallon)