The Dutchman had set the best lap times in all three practice sessions and edged Q1 by half a second over team-mate Sergio Perez as the qualifying result seemed a foregone conclusion.
Verstappen suffered a slide on his first attempt to set a competitive lap in Q2 and retired to prepare for another effort but, as he wound up, lost speed in the middle sector and signaled that he could no longer accelerate.
He limped back to the garage, but his exit from the cockpit was immediate when it became clear he could not continue the session. The team later reported that a mechanical failure in its driveshaft was the culprit.
Given his terrifying advantage, Verstappen’s ignominious end ensured the battle for pole would be wide open – although Perez got the whip thanks to Red Bull’s overall pace.
It turned out to be that way in the early runs, and Perez galloped at 1m28.265s to go almost half a second faster than Charles Leclerc’s best effort as the Monegasque pulled himself up at the top after his first run.
That put the gauntlet up for the other drivers, and Alonso was the first to challenge – but lost around three tenths in the final sector to get behind Perez in the order.
Lance Stroll then set the best first sector of anyone, keeping an eye on Perez on the next part of the circuit, but lost half a second in the latter part of the lap to eliminate any chance of claiming a surprise pole.
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Leclerc was the last serious contender to try and overhaul the Mexican, but he was just 0.155s down at the end of the lap – but that proved enough for the Ferrari driver to claim second place over Alonso on the sheets of time.
However, Leclerc will see the barrel of a 10-place grid penalty for the grand prix, after taking electronic re-orders for the second race of the season outside of his allowed allocation.
Perez’s effort in the opening rounds of the session proved more than enough to claim his second F1 pole position – his first coming in last year’s race at Jeddah.
Alonso’s best time was 0.465s slower than Perez and the Spaniard was therefore third fastest, ahead of George Russell as the Briton was able to set a competitive first sector time in his Mercedes.
Carlos Sainz overcame a scare in Q2, in which he had to try another lap to break into the top 10, to claim fifth fastest time with a devilish 0.666s deficit for pole. He starts alongside Russell on the second row due to Leclerc’s penalty, with Stroll fifth on Sunday’s grid.
Ocon was Hamilton’s seventh quickest, while Oscar Piastri made his first Q3 appearance in F1 and finished ninth overall, beating Pierre Gasly to a place on the fourth row of the grid once penalties applied.
Verstappen’s Q2 problem aside, Gasly made a late escape from the drop zone after being pushed into the last five by Haas driver Nico Hulkenberg.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
The German had bogged down in 14th place after the first set of races but climbed into the top 10 to leave Gasly on the verge of having to take an early dip.
In just 0.04 seconds, Gasly propelled Hulkenberg to a place in Q3 in a closely contested session in which the top 14 were covered in just 1.033 seconds.
Piastri dropped Yuki Tsunoda out of qualifying at the flag during Q1, moments after the AlphaTauri driver managed to push Alex Albon into the drop zone in the middle of a late flurry of laps.
Conversely, Lando Norris was unable to progress after hitting the inside wall at Turn 27, immediately breaking his left front suspension to force him into a quick retreat towards the pit lane. Norris was unable to return to the circuit, ensuring he was 19th fastest in the session.
He was surrounded on the timing boards by Nyck de Vries, who spun on his first timed lap around the first corner and then admitted to messing up the last corner on his last effort to try to get out of the last five.
Logan Sargeant backed the order after losing his best time to follow the boundaries. Coming out of the final corner, the American crossed the line at the bend of the starting straight, which cost him his lap in 1m29.721s – which would have been enough to get him into Q2.
Sargeant then spun on his next effort later in the session, then scuffed his final lap and reported an unspecified break – coming to rest at Turn 10 after coming to a stop.