Max Verstappen claims pole position for Japanese Grand Prix

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands during the qualifying session at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, central Japan, Saturday, April 6, 2024, ahead of Sunday's Japanese Formula One Grand Prix. (Hiro Komae/AP)

SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Max Verstappen was asked a few days ago if he had concerns going into the Japanese Grand Prix. His rear brakes caught fire just two weeks ago at the Australian GP, forcing him out on the fourth lap.

“No, no,” Verstappen replied.

True to his word. No worries. The Dutchman claimed the pole for Red Bull in Saturday qualifying, poised to return to his unprecedented dominance in Formula 1 after the blip in Australia.

Verstappen clocked 1 minute 28.197 seconds, just 0.066 ahead of Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. Lando Norris of McLaren and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari — the winner in Australia — will make up the second row.

“It was quite close at the end,” Verstappen said of his teammate Perez. “I think overall this track is very sensitive with the tires. When you really want to go to the limit it doesn’t always work out.”

Verstappen did not sound totally pleased with his day, but he’ll take it.

“The point is to be on pole,” he added. “Of course you want every lap to be perfect but around a track like this that’s not always the case. But overall a very good day — a good starting position for tomorrow. And of course, tomorrow is what counts.”

He also relished starting alongside Perez.

“It’s great as a team of course to be one and two, and hopefully we can keep that going for tomorrow.”

Verstappen pointed to Ferrari as Red Bull’s biggest threat, perhaps looking at Sainz who won in Melbourne and is in view again.

“Ferrari look very comfortable,” he said. “Maybe they were not so quick on one lap, but they were definitely fast in the long runs.”

Verstappen is the three-time defending champion and has won 21 of the last 25 races entering Sunday’s race in Japan.

He’s won every pole this season — four — and this was the 36th of his career and he chases his 57th win on Sunday.

Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, who dominated the sport before Verstappen, is without a win in 48 races — the last in 2021. He will start from seventh on the grid.

Saturday was a sunny, dry day and race day should be the same with no rain in the forecast. Rain often plagued the race when it was traditionally held in the fall. This season it’s been moved to the spring and dovetails with Japan’s cherry blossom season.

Fernando Alonso of Aston Martin was fifth, with McLaren’s Oscar Piastri qualifying in sixth place ahead of Hamilton.

Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda of the RB team will start No. 10 on the grid as he tries to top his strong seventh-place finish in Australia.

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