Verstappen led after the first runs in Q3 on 1m28.991s, with Leclerc and Sainz – just 0.080sec covering all three.
In the final runs, Leclerc topped the group and was having his personal best time from the start, then took the best time in the middle sector to unleash to 1:28.796.
Sainz ran back, clocking an astonishing first sector 0.2secs faster than his teammate, but wasted time as the lap went on and ended up 0.190secs off.
But that was still enough to put him ahead one time ahead of Verstappen, who finished second on the grid for Sunday’s race as the Red Bull driver gave up his last attempt.
Verstappen had to pick up a very big upset he faced after he threw the RB18 through the fast-flowing Turns 5/6 complex, slipped into the final corner and finished 0.6sec down on Leclerc in the first sector – after which he cruised back to the finish line and accepted his defeat with a note He “fucked her”.
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the second Red Bull, ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton.
Pierre Gasly finished seventh, while Lando Norris, Yuki Tsunoda and Lance Stroll rounded out the top ten.
Carlos Sainz, Ferrari F1-75
Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
In the second quarter, Fernando Alonso set his best time at the end, but was unable to reach the top ten in the shootout as he was eliminated in 11th place, immediately ahead of FP2 speed designer George Russell.
Russell went most of the second quarter without having time on the board as he battled with excessive wild shots through the slick first sector of the track and porpoises elsewhere, but finally made it to the top ten with his last effort.
But that came about two minutes before the middle part of qualifying was over and he didn’t have enough time to get back into the pits to get new tyres, so he was pushed down and eliminated.
He finished the season ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who said lost time slipped off the field at the end of the second division to score 13th, ahead of McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Haas’ Mick Schumacher.
In the first quarter, a wave of late improvements from several drivers suffering from lower rankings after an early run – including Hamilton and Alonso – saw Kevin Magnussen drop to 16th and out.
Zhou Guanyu was eliminated in 17th place, frustrated by being hit by heavy traffic in the last corners of his last flight lap, calling the scenes “dangerous” and urging Alfa to report the incident to the FIA.
Williams was hoping Alex Albon could replicate his strong FP3 pace, where he finished ninth, but did not set his personal best times in the last two sections of the final lap, which left him in 18th place.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB18
Photo by: Zach Mauger/Motorsport Pictures
That was ahead of Nicholas Latifi in the other Williams team, who had a personal best result at the end of the first quarter but was unable to climb from the back row of the grid for Sunday’s race.
Esteban Ocon did not participate in qualifying after a crack was discovered in his chassis after his heavy crash in chicane in FP3 and will finally start the race as a result.