Regardless of Verstappen losing five grid places to a new internal combustion engine, Leclerc set the pace at Monza by a quarter of a second to the delight of home fans as Sainz, who will start from the back of grid, timed third ahead of Sergio Perez.
Ferrari had tentatively secured a 1-2 in Q3 as Sainz clocked 1m20.584s in his first race in Q3, helped by a purple run in sector one, to edge Leclerc’s effort in 1m20.770s.
Verstappen initially settled for third, despite his prowess in the second sector, as he was just under a tenth adrift of the second F1-75.
And then for the climax, it looked like Red Bull might offer the ultimate answer when Verstappen once again pulled off the quickest run through the central part of the circuit to turn up the heat.
Even though Leclerc had been a few hundredths slower than Sainz’s benchmark in S1 and had never sewn a purple sector, his combined effort scored an unrivaled 1m20.161s.
That gave him bragging rights for Verstappen’s 1m20.306s even before the RB18 took sixth place on the grid as Sainz ran at 1m20.429s.
With Perez falling 10 places – the Mexican having been a league behind the top three when he was 0.8 seconds behind sister Red Bull – and Lewis Hamilton another driver over his allowed parts limit, George Russell will start alongside Leclerc.
This happened despite the Mercedes W13 having trouble warming up its tires again.
Lando Norris, meanwhile, took seventh fastest time from Daniel Ricciardo as Pierre Gasly did enough to edge out Alpine’s Fernando Alonso – the two-time champion who interrupted his last race.
Gasly had propelled himself into the top 10 in penalties with a 1m22.062s effort in Q2 to find 0.07s over Esteban Ocon, the Alpine driver missing in 11th place after running slower in the first and second sectors from its previous turn.
Gasly escaped the attention of stewards for being released side-by-side with Lando Norris in a late flurry to find track position when all left the garages with 2m20 to go.
Valtteri Bottas, who struggled to brake throughout practice, raced to 12th ahead of Formula E champion and substitute Alex Albon Nyck de Vries aboard the Williams.
De Vries had complained in his first-ever F1 qualifying session that he struggled to brake in the first chicane, but his final fast lap was missed later in the lap.
Approaching the second chicane, the Dutch driver locked the rear end to suffer a heavy smack which he eventually caught, but immediately knew his qualifying session was over.
Nonetheless, he capitalized on the FW44’s straight-line speed supremacy to take 14th ahead of the Alfa Romeo of Zhou Guanyu and Yuki Tsunoda.
The AlphaTauri driver, who joins Hamilton and Sainz with a back-of-the-grid penalty, did not take part in Q2.
It came after Verstappen became the first driver of the weekend to fall below 1m21s, having passed the 18-minute Q1 by 0.35s over Leclerc thanks to his 1m20.922s flight.
But it was less rosy for Nicholas Latifi, whose struggles on the brakes eliminated him in the first part of qualifying when he was just two hundredths behind de Vries’ first try.
Substitute for an Albon sidelined with appendicitis, de Vries hung on for a Q2 appearance despite going a quicker final lap in Q1 behind rubbed for pushing his luck with the limits of the track.
Sebastian Vettel, meanwhile, continued his run of Q1 outings in 17th while Lance Stroll was only 18th in second Aston Martin as Haas brought up the rear.
It was a messy session for both VF-22s, as Kevin Magnussen had his times canceled twice for going out of bounds thanks to a series of infractions during the second Lesmo.
Mick Schumacher, who was stuck in practice with clutch problems, ran the slowest after considerable lockup at the front right in the first chicane to run straight.
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