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Ferrari's Charles Leclerc during final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Miami at the Miami International Autodrome in Miami, Florida. Image Credit: AFP

Miami: World championship leader Charles Leclerc praised the enthusiasm of Ferrari’s many American fans Saturday, but warned of a tense battle ahead after leading the Italian team to a front-row lockout at the inaugural Miami Grand Prix.

The 24-year-old Monegasque claimed pole position ahead of his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz after world champion Max Verstappen made a rare error and slipped to third on the grid for Red Bull at a packed Miami International Autodrome.

“The fans are crazy,” said a beaming Leclerc. “But it’s incredible to be here in the United States and to see how much the sport has grown over the last few years.

“The last race weekend wasn’t great for me. I made a mistake in that race. But today it went well. We are starting on pole and we need to finish the job. Red Bull are extremely quick in the straight lines, but we are quick in the corners and it will be a tight challenge tomorrow. We feel very motivated as there are so many Ferrari fans here.”

Leclerc clocked a fastest lap in one minute and 28.796 seconds to outpace team-mate Sainz by two-tenths.

Slight mistake

Verstappen was third after making a slight mistake on his final flying lap. His Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez was fourth with Valtteri Bottas fifth for Alfa Romeo and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton sixth for Mercedes.

Verstappen, who is on 59 points in the championship and trails Leclerc by 27 points, swallowed his disappointment after missing much of Friday practice.

“Overall, I’m pretty pleased with qualifying,” the Dutch driver said.

“I literally did four or five laps yesterday. The whole of today I was trying to learn the track and trying to find a decent balance in the car and actually, to be that competitive in qualifying, it was a bit of a surprise because this is not an easy track to learn.

“Of course, you want to be on pole but where we came from, we’ve done a really good job. But we have to start making the weekends a little bit less difficult because like this, it’s always going to be tricky.

“We have a good chance tomorrow. The car is handling quite well, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Sainz, who recovered well after a crash in practice on Friday, said it had not been easy to regain his confidence and push hard on such a punishing circuit.

“Building up a bit from a pretty heavy crash,” he said. “It wasn’t easy at all to get the confidence back in such a difficult circuit like this new one.”

“Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day with everything going on this weekend. We haven’t done any long runs yet, haven’t put fuel in the car, so tomorrow will be the first time.

“It could be a challenge, but I’m feeling confident with the car. It is nice to drive round here so I think we can do a good job.”

It was Leclerc’s third pole this year and the 12th of his career. For Sainz it was the second time he had secured a front-row start. It was Ferrari’s first front-row lockout since the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix.

Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri qualified seventh ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and Yuki Tsunoda in the second Alpha Tauri, with Lance Stroll taking 10th for Aston Martin.

Third row

Hamilton was relieved with a place on the third row after Mercedes suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify either of their cars in the top 10 at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

“This is much better than last week for me,” he said. “So, I’ll take it. The car is a little better, but we have to keep working and keep our heads down.”

His team-mate George Russell qualified 12th.

“It’s confusing,” he said. “My lap was slower today than I was in second practice yesterday. There was potential in there, but it’s feeling too inconsistent.”