Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took pole position following a farcical end to qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix.
All drivers except Leclerc and Carlos Sainz of McLaren failed to get around to start a final lap after waiting to catch a slipstream at high-speed Monza.
The unlikely climax left Leclerc on pole with his first lap, beating Lewis Hamilton by 0.039 seconds.
The other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas was third, ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo.
It was Leclerc’s second consecutive pole position in just seven days.
The 21-year-old did not even have to complete a final lap after he became the only frontrunner to make it across the line in time at the end of the session.
What was all that slipstream nonsense about?
Leclerc was greeted by frenzied cheers from the thousands of passionate Ferrari fans – the tifosi – packed into Monza in expectation of a Ferrari pole.
Leclerc, who had already enjoyed a rapturous reception in nearby Milan on Wednesday at a celebration of 90 years of the Italian Grand Prix, said: “It feels unbelievable.
“Already on Wednesday in Milan was incredible and today to see so many people feels absolutely amazing.
“Happy with the pole but in the end there was a big mess. I hoped for a last lap but in the end it was enough for pole.”
The almost laughable scenes at the end were precipitated by the fact that a slipstream – where one car gains an advantage by closely following another – at Monza can be worth about 0.3secs a lap, invaluable when the times are so close around a circuit with only six effective corners.
Hamilton said Mercedes had been caught out because they were waiting for Ferrari to run first.
“I have to be grateful I am on the front row,” said the world champion. “We get to have a fight with the Ferraris tomorrow. We split them and it is a nice position to be in. We can give them a good fight.
“It was a bit of an anti-climax at the end but it is crazy with this system we now have and they basically timed us out.
“On the out lap it is dangerous. You don’t know who’s slowing down and who’s alongside you. It is risky business but it is enjoyable at the same time.”
Teams had been warned that drivers could face penalties for driving unnecessarily slowly on their out laps and the end to qualifying is being investigated by governing body the FIA.
Leclerc, Hamilton and Bottas agreed that the situation was dangerous and far from ideal, but said that they did not see a way out of it while the tow was so important to a lap time.
“It will be until someone crashes that they will change it,” Hamilton said.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: “The problem was everyone wants a slipstream and nobody wants to go first… and then everyone looks like idiots.”
A series of incidents
The controversial end to the session was fitting in some ways for a day filled with incident and controversy.
Vettel was investigated for setting a lap time while gaining an advantage while going off the track at the Parabolica corner, but no further action was taken by stewards.
Red Bull’s Alexander Albon failed to record a time on his first run because he was running behind Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen, who crashed at Parabolica.
Raikkonen’s crash also delayed Hamilton, who was right behind the Finn and had to lift slightly at the last corner, later saying he felt that had cost him pole.
And Bottas, running behind Hamilton at the time, initially had his first lap time deleted on the basis that he had not made it across the line before the red flag for Raikkonen’s crash, only for officials to reinstate it when it became apparent in fact he had.
And Bottas escaped having his time deleted despite passing yellow flags for Raikkonen’s crash, on the basis that he did slow down – which he also said he felt had cost him pole.
The track limits needed to be policed at Parabolica because a kerb the had been inserted to deter the drivers from going off track had to be removed after it launched a Formula 3 car into a horrifying accident in a race in the morning.
Australian Alex Peroni suffered a series of mid-air somersaults and twists before crashing down upside down on the barriers.
He walked away from the crash but was later taken to hospital where it was discovered he has a broken vertebra.
“Not sure the recovery time but hope to be back in the car as soon as possible,” he wrote on Instagram.
Another blow for Vettel
Vettel has now been out-qualified by Leclerc for seven races in a row and the session did not go his way.
He set his first lap without a tow after the Ferraris followed the Mercedes out only to see the silver cars pull over at the end of the pit lane. Vettel hesitated, thought about stopping behind them, but then accelerated away.
In the circumstances, he did well to lap within 0.15secs of Leclerc.
The Monegasque said the original plan was for Vettel to tow him on the first runs and then Leclerc to return the favour on the seconds.
But in the chaos of the dying seconds, Vettel first overtook Leclerc early on the warm-up lap as the cars jockeyed for position.
Leclerc then passed Vettel before Parabolica on instruction to the team, but Vettel did not cross the line in time to do a lap.
Behind the top four, Ricciardo was in excellent form in the Renault, which lacks downforce but has a strong engine and goes well on this type of track.
The Australian was 0.21secs quicker than team-mate Nico Hulkenberg, with McLaren’s Carlos Sainz eighth.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz will start the race from the back as a result of penalties for using too many engines.
And Raikkonen, although he was classified 10th, is likely to join them, as it seems inconceivable he will not at least have to have a new gearbox after smashing backwards into the barriers, which would mean a five-place penalty. And depending on any other changes Alfa make to the car, there may be more.