Max Verstappen was quickest by over half a second in Q3 at Spa-Francorchamps yet will start 15th on the grid as one of several drivers taking engine penalties for the first race back from the summer break.
Sainz put himself on pole as the best of the rest behind the Red Bull despite a scruffy final lap, kicking up gravel as he failed to improve on the time of his first run, although it mattered little as Sergio Perez still finished over a tenth behind.
The Mexican will start second in Sunday’s race ahead of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes having failed to take advantage of a big opportunity in qualifying. George Russell was eighth fastest to earn fifth on the grid.
Charles Leclerc could only muster fourth on the timesheet and was caught up by another Ferrari error in Q3, being sent out on fresh tyres when only charged with delivering teammate Sainz a slipstream tow down the long Spa straight.
“It’s a mistake,” the Scuderia admitted over team radio as the team struggle to show they have learnt the lessons from their fumbles that have continually damaged Leclerc’s title challenge.
Either way, he will start from 16th having taken a series of grid penalties for new components on his car this weekend. Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon, Guanyu Zhou and Mick Schumacher have also been knocked down the order.
Alex Albon’s first Q3 finish in the Williams puts him in good standing for a haul of points, starting sixth and ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in seventh as he looks to earn a new seat in F1 for next season.
Hamilton said after the session: “To be 1.8 seconds behind [Verstappen] is a real kick in the teeth. It is what it is, it’s a car we continue to struggle with. Definitely won’t miss it at the end of the year, for me it’s about focusing on next year’s car.”
While qualifying was, to say the least, disjointed it does at least set up an intriguing grid for Sunday’s race.