The Ferrari driver took provisional pole during the first runs of the session, but the desire for drivers to access the powerful Monza slipstream by trailing another car saw the farcical situation of the entire field driving as slowly as possible to position themselves for their final flying lap of Q3.
But the drivers were so preoccupied trying to line up behind another car that the clock expired before most of them could start their last timed lap, with only Leclerc and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz crossing the line with seconds remaining.
It was a gift to Leclerc, who needed not defend his provisional time to confirm a bizarre but popular pole at Ferrari’s home race.
“It feels unbelievable,” he said. “Today to see so many people feels absolutely amazing.
“Happy with the pole, but it’s a shame that in the end there was a big mess.”
Ferrari’s class-leading engine and low-downforce car has marked it as favourite for the race at Monza, where straight-line speed pays enormous dividends, and the team is confident that the tyre-wear issues that almost cost it victory last weekend at the similarly fast Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps have been cured for Sunday’s race.
“I think the pace was quite good during the race simulation in [Friday practice], so it’s looking positive,” Leclerc said. “Better than in Spa, so let’s hope for a good race tomorrow.”
However, the FIA had warned teams and drivers after a similar saga unfolded in Belgium last weekend that unduly slow out-laps in qualifying would be penalised, and the stewards immediately opened an investigation into the entire final lap.
Lewis Hamilton put Mercedes on the front row after a strong first Q3 lap aided by a slipstream from teammate Valtteri Bottas, who qualified third.
The Briton said he was pleased to get ahead of Sebastian Vettel in fourth but lamented that he didn’t have the chance to fight for pole.
“Honestly, I have to be grateful I’m on the front row,” he said. “We get to have a fight with the Ferraris tomorrow, which is nice.
“Definitely a little bit of an anticlimax that we couldn’t all go out and do that final lap — it’s crazy now the timing we have, the system we have, where everybody is backing up and trying to get position.”
Vettel was one of the biggest losers from the Q3 shenanigans. The German had topped Saturday morning practice and was due to receive a slipstream from Leclerc for his final lap, but he couldn’t pick his way through the pedestrian-pace chaos in time to improve on his first lap.
“I was trying to get through, but people were blocking the road,” he said. “I’m not happy with how it went. I thought internally we had a better ways that we communicated this.”
“Qualifying was good, the car was very good, I had a very good lap — I just had no tow. That’s difference between pole and no pole today.”
Renault teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg qualified a superb fifth and sixth, but Hulkenberg was independently summoned by the stewards for wilfully leaving the track on his final out-lap in an apparent attempt to position himself behind other cars upon rejoining, albeit unsuccessfully.
Sainz qualified seventh as the lowest-placed driver to have recorded a time, the Spaniard 0.4 seconds slower that Hulkenberg in his McLaren.
Alex Albon qualified eighth — ahead of Racing Point’s Lance Stroll in ninth —in an unlucky session for the Thai driver. Not only was he prevented from setting a time in the confusion of the final runs, but his first lap was annulled by a red flag triggered by Kimi Raikkonen.
Raikkonen’s session ended prematurely when the rear of his Alfa Romeo stepped out as he turned into the long Parabolica. He was propelled backwards into the tyre barrier, triggering a red flag and eliminating himself in 10th place in the process.
Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi fell just 0.002 seconds short of the top-10 shootout, qualifying 11th ahead of Kevin Magnussen in the highest-placed Haas.
Toro Rosso teammates Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly qualified 13th and 15th and were split by McLaren’s Lando Norris, the two teams illustrating the power of the slipstream and the potential to get it wrong.
Kvyat had begged the team to deploy Gasly as the lead car for his final Q2 lap to give him the up-to 0.7-second advantage, but the two cars left pit lane separated by several other rivals, preventing the team from capitalising on the strategy.
McLaren, however, expertly used Norris to benefit teammate Sainz, allowing the Spaniard to catapult into Q3, albeit at the Briton’s expense, leaving him 14th.
Romain Grosjean qualified 16th, the Frenchman missing out on a Q2 berth by just 0.061 seconds.
Sergio Perez stopped on track with four and a half minutes remaining in Q1 with a power unit problem. On-board video showed the Mexican’s Racing Point car gurgle to a halt at Curva Grande, triggering a red flag to aid his recovery.
Perez was only 17th after two fast laps when his engine failed, guaranteeing his exit at the end of the session.
George Russell qualified 18th ahead of Williams teammate Robert Kubica.
Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen failed to set a time after reporting a loss of engine power. The Dutchman’s first lap was disrupted by Perez’s red flag, and when he left pit lane at the resumption to set a time his power unit encountered a problem as he rocketed through Curva Grande, leaving him last.
Verstappen was due to start at the back of the grid anyway with a penalty for installing a brand-new power unit beyond his maximum allocation for the season.