MONACO — Defending Formula One champion Max Verstappen produced a superb final lap to take pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix on Saturday and deny Aston Martin veteran Fernando Alonso his first pole in 11 years.
Verstappen called his first pole at Monaco “very lovely” but there was nothing to cheer for his Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez as last year's race winner crashed early in qualifying.
Alpine's Esteban Ocon surprisingly led near the end of the session before the 41-year-old Alonso moved back to the top as he chased a first pole since the German GP in 2012, when he was with Ferrari.
But Verstappen had other ideas as he brushed the walls of the sinewy street circuit to beat Alonso's time by just 0.084 seconds and clinch his fourth pole of the season and 23rd of his career.
“I knew this weekend it was going to be tight," the 25-year-old Verstappen said. “I definitely pushed a bit harder.”
Alonso walked over to Verstappen and shook his hand after a tight tussle between the two-time F1 champions.
“Feels great, I always had confidence in what I could do," Alonso said. “We’re starting on the front row in Monaco, so job done."
Alonso has four third-place finishes in five races, so Verstappen joked that he’d try to help him finally win again.
“I’ll think about it. I’d like to see Fernando win, but I’d like to win myself,” Verstappen said. “I love watching his style."
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc was chasing a third straight pole on his home circuit but qualified in third, 0.106 behind Verstappen.
But Leclerc was then handed a three-place grid penalty by race stewards for impeding McLaren's Lando Norris. Stewards ruled that Norris was on a fast lap and caught up with Leclerc in the middle of the tunnel, where he was clearly impeded.
Stewards reviewed team radio and found that Ferrari failed to give Leclerc any warning about Norris’ approach until the other driver was already directly behind him.
Last year, Ferrari made a series of blunders with strategy calls and team orders — including at the Monaco GP, where Leclerc missed out on a possible victory when he was called into the pits at the wrong time and ended up finishing fourth.
Saturday's grid penalty move moved Ocon up from fourth to third, while Ferrari's Carlos Sainz Jr. improves to fourth ahead of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes in fifth.
Pierre Gasly (Alpine), George Russell (Mercedes), Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) and Norris rounded out the top 10.
Perez will start from the back.
Regarded as one of F1's best drivers on street circuits, the Mexican driver lost control of the rear when entering Sainte-Devote too quickly, thudded into the barriers and bust his left tire to bring out a red flag.
“He’ll be kicking himself for that,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said, adding that Verstappen's lap was “one of the best laps he’s ever driven in quali.”
Hamilton, who had crashed near the end of the third practice, left it late to make it into Q2 on a new set of soft tires and then also squeezed into Q3 on his last lap.
“It was so tough. This car is a son of a gun. I was pushing so hard,” the seven-time F1 champion Hamilton said. “When you are overdriving, it is the worst place to be because the car doesn’t do what you want.”
Alonso started Q3 with the fastest time and set the tone for a thrilling ending.
“I'm pushing like an animal,” Alonso said on team radio.
He came close, but the Spanish veteran is well placed on Sunday to push for his first win since 2013.
Monaco is arguably the toughest track for overtaking but its claustrophobic nature leads to tension and crashes.
“If an opportunity comes we will take it," Alonso said. “We cannot take it for granted that all three cars will finish.”
Verstappen has won three races this season and leads the championship by 16 points ahead of Perez — a gap that could significantly increase.
All of Verstappen’s 38 career wins have been with Red Bull and he needs one more to beat Sebastian Vettel’s tally when he won his four F1 titles with the team from 2010-13.
Earlier Saturday, Verstappen led an eventful final practice ahead of Perez and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll.
A red flag ended the session with a few minutes left after Hamilton made an uncharacteristic error, oversteering and slamming the crash barrier with his front left tire.
Verstappen’s rear left almost hit the barrier coming out of Sainte-Devote, a near-miss which is not unusual in Monaco given the nature of the sinewy street circuit.
Leclerc complained that he was having trouble heading into the “S” section next to the swimming pool —where Sainz crashed late in Friday’s second practice.
American actor Michael Douglas had a prime view of it all as he watched from a balcony overlooking the track.
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen’s car stalled on the track near the end of P3, prompting a virtual safety car. Moments later, with tires cooler, Hamilton locked up as he snaked past Fairmont Hotel and wedged into the barriers at Mirabeau.
Hamilton climbed out and slid under a barrier before walking back pensively with his hands behind his back as the car was hoisted high in the blue sky air by a crane.