MONACO (AP) — Charles Leclerc won the first pole for Ferrari since 2019 despite crashing with 18 seconds remaining to end Saturday qualifying at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Leclerc held the top spot at his home track until his Ferrari grazed a barrier to break a suspension piece. He then hopped a curb and finally came to a stop crashed into another barrier to bring the qualifying session to an abrupt end.
The 23-year-old Leclerc grew up in a flat overlooking the circuit that snakes around the picturesque principality. He lives a few kilometers away in Cap d’Ail, one of many small and scenic spots dotted along the French Riviera’s spectacular coastline.
He was visibly emotional after becoming the first Monaco driver to take pole here.
“I have mixed feelings a little bit, because with the crash I don’t know where I’m starting yet," he said. "I just did too much and I touched the wall on the inside."
He could forfeit pole if the damage to his Ferrari is too great that he receives a grid penalty. If the gear box must be changed — which Leclerc feared — he'd lose five positions on the starting grid.
“I am worried about a penalty. I’ve always been very unlucky here, so let’s just wait and see,” said Leclerc. “It’s a shame to finish in the wall. It doesn’t feel the same but I’m incredibly happy about my lap.”
The red flag prevented world champion Lewis Hamilton and his title contender Max Verstappen from completing their final qualifying lap. Verstappen will start second for Red Bull; Hamilton seventh for Mercedes.
“That crash ruined the chance for pole,” Verstappen said. “Just a shame about the red flag.”
Valtteri Bottas qualified third for Mercedes behind Verstappen.
Leclerc waved to his fans as a crane lifted his car off the track. His lap at 1 minute, 10.35 seconds on the 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) course gave him his eighth career pole. But it was his first since the Mexican Grand Prix in October 2019 and a boost for Ferrari after the team struggled all last year.
Leclerc will try to become Monaco’s first local winner since Louis Chiron in 1931.
Perhaps it was a lucky charm, but his friend Prince Albert visited Ferrari's garage before qualifying. Albert messaged Leclerc when he took his first pole at the Bahrain GP in early 2019.
Albert’s hilltop castle overlooks the track, but he has never seen anyone local win.
Prince Rainier III, Albert’s father and husband to American actress Grace Kelly, was only a young boy when Chiron won.
If Leclerc does win, Albert's wife Princess Charlene will not witness it. She left for a wildlife preservation mission to South Africa, the Royal Palace said.
Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz Jr. completed a great day for the Italian manufacturer by qualifying fourth in his first season with Ferrari.
Lando Norris of McLaren was fifth and followed by AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly.
Leclerc made an odd mistake when his rear front left tire locked and he hit a barrier. It made no immediate difference to his position on the grid, but the red flag ended the session and cost everyone behind him a shot at moving up on the starting grid.
Hamilton holds a 14-point lead over Verstappen after four races, with the rivals placing 1-2 in every race. But Verstappen has a great chance to narrow the gap at a Monaco track which notoriously difficult for overtaking.
After their first runs in Q3, the final section of qualifying, Leclerc had the fastest lap ahead of Verstappen, with Hamilton surprisingly sluggish.
“We definitely had some problems today,” Hamilton said. “I guess the minimum will be seventh, and then hope we can get higher.”
The 36-year-old Hamilton was bidding for a record-extending 101st pole and the 23-year-old Verstappen a fifth, but Leclerc caused a major surprise.
“It is a huge step forward. I think the pole is a good reward for the team," Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said. "It will be difficult to win. Verstappen is very, very fast and he will give us a hard time.”
Earlier, Verstappen posted the fastest time in the final practice from Sainz Jr. and Leclerc, with Hamilton seventh.
An eventful session was twice interrupted for crashes near the end.
Nicholas Latifi hit the barriers and mangled the front right wheel of his Williams along the harbor. Then, Mick Schumacher crashed his Haas car coming out of Casino Square and there was not enough time to restart.
He needed a gearbox change and starts last.
Ferrari looked strong in Thursday’s first two sessions, too, with Leclerc topping P2 and Sainz Jr. second in both.
Some fans returned to the stands after the iconic race was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Police stopped some buses coming through from Cap d’Ail — which is in France — into Monaco and checked people’s work permits. Security officials also checked passengers at the exit of Monaco-Monte Carlo train station, ensuring they had a negative PCR test for COVID-19 when entering.
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