Runaway Formula One leader Max Verstappen dominated an intriguing floodlit qualifying session on Friday to claim pole position for the Qatar Grand Prix, which he could start as a triple world champion.
It was the 26-year-old Dutchman's 10th pole position of a commanding season for Red Bull.
He wound up four-tenths of a second ahead of nearest rival George Russell, whose Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton slipped from second to fourth, and then rose to third when the two McLarens had laps scrubbed out in a confusing final flurry.
Lando Norris of McLaren was second when he crossed the line before his best late lap was deleted for exceeding track limits. His team-mate Oscar Piastri placed third before losing his lap too. He fell to sixth. Norris dropped to 10th.
Verstappen can clinch his third consecutive title before Sunday's race by finishing sixth or better in Saturday's sprint race.
He said he was satisfied with his performance in tricky conditions with a gusty wind blowing sand and dust across the newly re-surfaced asphalt of the Lusail International Circuit.
"It's a great start to the weekend," said Verstappen, who celebrated his birthday last weekend. "I'm happy to be on pole and it has been a good day for us."
'Working so well'
"Of course, I want to win this race whatever happens tomorrow. We have got pole and I want to win it (Sunday's Grand Prix), but first let's be quick and do the job tomorrow.
"It will be difficult for the tyres with all this sand on the track, but our car is working so well."
It was the 30th pole position overall in Verstappen's career.
After much post-session confusing, Hamilton was declared third for Mercedes ahead of Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso and Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.
Embattled French team-mates Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon of Alpine were seventh and eighth ahead of Valtteri Bottas of Alfa Romeo and Norris.
The qualifying session, for Sunday's race, began with an air temperature of 32 degrees Celsius and a track temperature of 35, under the Losail lights.
Verstappen's opening lap was swiftly beaten by Alonso before Leclerc took the initiative as several drivers fell foul of the strict track limits rules in the difficult conditions.
Leclerc and Alonso swapped fastest laps before Norris and then Verstappen set the pace.
The first qualifying session ended with Logan Sargeant of Williams missing the cut along with Aston Martin's Lance Stroll, Liam Lawson of Alpha Tauri, Kevin Magnussen of Haas and Zhou Guanyu of Alfa Romeo.
Stroll, son of team owner Lawrence Stroll, was filmed pushing his personal trainer after climbing from his car and, in a fit of pique gave only brief and rude responses to broadcasters.
A hectic second session wound up with Hamilton fastest ahead of Verstappen while Yuki Tsunoda of Alpha Tauri missed the cut in 11th ahead of Sainz, Perez, Alex Albon of Williams and Haas's Nico Hulkenberg.
Hamilton had taken pole in qualifying at the inaugural Qatar event in 2021 and secured his career record 104th pole at the Hungarian event in July, memories to buoy him as his former team-mate Valtteri Bottas led the field into Q3.
Verstappen responded, clocking 1 minute 23.778 seconds, the best lap of the day, a full half-second ahead of Hamilton. After a season of 13 wins in 16 races, the champion had restored his total dominance.
In the title race, Hamilton is only 33 points behind the struggling Perez and with six races to go retains a good chance of finishing runner-up.
Verstappen chose to save tyres and not make a second flying run.
Norris went first without success before Russell and Piastri moved ahead of Hamilton who fell to fourth and, like Verstappen, aborted his effort in a furious finale that saw both men sliding off the racing line.