The Dutchman swept to pole with a lap at the death to deprive the battling Mercedes drivers an easy run for the final race of the season, beating Valtteri Bottas by a slender 0.025 seconds and world champion Lewis Hamilton by 0.086 seconds.
It’s Verstappen first pole since last November’s Brazilian Grand Prix and the first pole of the year for a non-Mercedes-powered car.
The Red Bull Racing driver was relieved to finally get the job done, having run the Mercedes pair close all season without success.
“It’s a long season for everyone and especially a lot of races in a row, so I think this was a good final qualifying for everyone in the team,” he said. “For sure we are very happy with it. The whole year, when you’re behind getting closer, it’s getting sometimes a bit frustrating, but I’m very, very pleased with today.”
Bottas was disappointed to miss pole despite usurping Hamilton, who had controlled qualifying up until the final minute, pinning his shortcomings on activating the tyres as the track turned from dusk to twilight.
“We saw in practice three that Red Bull, especially in the hands of Max, was very quick,” Bottas conceded. “We couldn’t get the soft tyres to work as they should.
“I think we made some improvements, but looking at the result I don’t think we got 100 per cent out of a single lap with the tyres.”
Hamilton admitted he had struggled to get back into the swing of a race weekend after skipping last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix with COVID-19, but the Briton congratulated Max for pipping his team at long last.
“Really grateful to be back here with the team,” he said. “It’s definitely been a difficult weekend, I would say, just getting back into the rhythm.
“Congratulations to Max - great way for him to seal a year of great performance. But we’re going to give them a good run tomorrow.”
Lando Norris qualified fourth and just 0.251 seconds off the pace, a potentially crucial result in McLaren’s battle to close the 10-point gap to Racing Point for third in the constructors standings.
His teammate, Carlos Sainz, qualified sixth, while, Lance Stroll was the best-placed Racing Point driver in eighth. The second Racing Point machine, piloted by Sergio Perez, wills tart 19th with power unit penalties.
Alex Albon slotted into fifth between the McLaren drivers, the Thai 0.325 seconds slower than his pole-getting teammate. Albon is so far still unsigned for 2021, with Red Bull Racing reserving its decision until the end of the season.
AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat qualified seventh in what is likely to be his final race in Formula 1. The Russian is set to be replaced by Japanese Formula Two rising star Yuji Tsunoda.
Charles Leclerc qualified ninth for Ferrari ahead of AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly.
Esteban Ocon beat Renault teammate Daniel Ricciardo for the first time in a dry qualifying session this season, albeit in a disappointing 11th and 12th, hurting the French team’s chances of catching McLaren and Racing Point for third in the championship standings.
Sebastian Vettel’s last Saturday as a Ferrari driver ended in 13th, his 13th failure to make the top-10 shootout in 2021, ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi.
Sergio Perez qualified 15th, but the Mexican, winner at last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix, will start 19th with a series of power unit penalties following his fiery engine failure two weeks ago in Bahrain.
Kimi Raikkonen was 16th for Alfa Romeo ahead off Haas driver Kevin Magnussen in 17th. However, the Dane will start from the back of the grid for using extra power unit parts beyond his season’s allocation.
George Russell, back driving for Williams after filling in for Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in Bahrain last weekend, was 18th in the session.
Pietro Fittipaldi, in his second and last scheduled race for Haas replacing the injured Romain Grosjean, was 19th quickest ahead of Williams rookie Nicholas Latifi.