Verstappen was in a league of his own during qualifying, blitzing the field by more than 0.6 seconds, enough to not bother with a second flying lap in the top-10 shootout.
But the Dutchman’s scintillating display of speed was in vain. Weighed down by penalties for taking new engine components, topping qualifying only meant that he would start at the head of a gaggle of five other cars carrying similar grid drops, including Leclerc, who will start 16th.
Instead Carlos Sainz was promoted to pole after a difficult qualifying hour for Ferrari.
The Italian team has been all at sea over the Spa-Francorchamps weekend, and despite set-up changed on Friday night, the SF-75 was still not match for the Red Bull Racing machine.
In fact Ferrari was forced to use Leclerc to generate a slipstream for Sainz during their final laps of Q3 just to guarantee a place ahead of Sergio Perez. The slipstream failed, but when Perez also couldn’t improve his time with his second lap, the Spaniard was able to record his second F1 pole position.
But despite the career achievement, Sainz was wary about his chances in the race.
“I’m happy to be starting on pole,” he said. “Obviously not so happy to see the gap to Max this weekend and the gap Red Bull has on us.
“We need to keep digging to see why Red Bull was o fast on this track and why we are trailing them.
“I think our race pace is a bit better than our quali pace, but there’s certainly something to find.”
Perez wasn’t slipstreamed by Verstappen in Q3, potentially costing him a shot at pole, but the Mexican was confident the race could come to him for what would be his second win of the year.
“P2 is not the worst place to be around here,” he said, noting the slipstream he could get from Sainz on the first lap. “It will be very important to get a good start and try to do our own race form the beginning.
“Looking forward to tomorrow, I think there will be a great race ahead of us.”
Leclerc qualified fourth but will be dropped to 16th after taking yet more engine change penalties. He’ll start ahead of fellow penalised drivers Esteban Ocon in P17 (fifth fastest in qualifying), Lando Norris in P18 (10th), Zhou Guanyu in P19 (13th) and Mick Schumacher at the back of the pack (15th).
Promoted into their places at the pointy end of the grid will be Fernando Alonso, who will start an excellent third for Alpine.
Lewis Hamilton and George Russell followed for Mercedes in fourth and fifth after qualifying seventh and eighth, but the team was bitterly disappointed to lap around two seconds off the pace in a performance boss Toto Wolff described as his worst since joining the team 10 years ago.
Thai driver Alex Albon was superb all afternoon to crack Q3 on merit, for which he was rewarded with sixth on the grid after penalties ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly and Aston Martin teammates Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel.
Nicholas Latifi will start 11th ahead of Kevin Magnussen and Yuki Tsunoda.
Valtteri Bottas will start 14th despite qualifying 20th and being penalised 40 grid places for a string of engine and gearbox changes.
The Finn was the beneficiary of a rules loophole that allows drivers to avoid falling to the back of the grid - as was the case with the six drivers behind him - if they incur their penalties over several smaller offences rather than in one large tranche.
Alfa Romeo was the only team to successfully exploit the unusual rules quirk, earning Bottas an unusual promotion despite his supposed punishment.