* Verstappen stripped of pole after stewards’ enquiry
* Dutch driver chasing hat-trick of wins from fourth
* Ferrari’s Leclerc inherits pole position
* Hamilton starts third in race that could decide title
* Bottas crashes heavily at last corner (Writes through after Verstappen stripped of pole)
By Alan Baldwin
MEXICO CITY, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was handed pole position for the Mexican Grand Prix on Saturday after stewards demoted Max Verstappen for failing to slow for yellow warning flags in qualifying.
The Red Bull driver’s three place drop to fourth also lifted Sebastian Vettel to an all-Ferrari front row and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to third, boosting the Briton’s chances of sealing his sixth world championship on Sunday.
Since the high-altitude race returned to the calendar in 2015, every winner has started on the front row.
“I think it’s clear for everyone that when there’s a yellow flag you need to slow down... I think it’s clear for every driver. It’s the basics,” Leclerc had said after qualifying second on the track.
The qualifying session had ended in drama after Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas crashed heavily at the last corner, strewing the track with debris.
Verstappen, winner of the past two Mexican Grands Prix, had sounded defiant in a post-qualifying news conference when he admitted he had not slowed for the flags warning of the accident.
“I was aware that Valtteri crashed,” said the 22-year-old Dutchman.
Asked whether he had backed off, Verstappen replied: “Didn’t really look like it, did it? No.”
Hamilton can wrap up the championship on Sunday with three races to spare if he finishes on the podium at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and scores 14 points more than Bottas.
Bottas was passed fit after a trip to the medical centre, but Mercedes faced a busy evening repairing extensive damage to his car.
The front row lockout was Ferrari’s second in a row and their sixth successive pole. It is also Leclerc’s seventh pole of the season.
“In that last sector, it all went to pot,” said Hamilton before the penalty was announced. “I’m generally happy with today, it’s hard to keep up with the others,”
“We knew it would be difficult this weekend but I gave it everything; it wasn’t enough for pole and I got enough out of the car and it puts us in a good enough fighting position for tomorrow.”
Bottas, the only driver with a mathematical chance of denying Hamilton the title, qualified sixth but with questions about possible grid penalties.
He said the team was ‘pretty optimistic’ that the car could be rebuilt without incurring any drop.
The Finn, 64 points behind Hamilton, lost control into the last Peraltada corner and careered along the wall at speed before slamming into the end of the energy-absorbing Tecpro barrier.
He stayed in the car for a while, his breathing heavy over the team radio, before climbing out and going to the medical centre.
“We are 90% confident we can fix it (the damage) without any penalties. It was an unusual angle of impact so I think we got away with that,” said team boss Toto Wolff.
Mercedes have already secured the constructors’ crown for an unprecedented sixth year in a row and are also sure of a record sixth successive driver’s title.
Verstappen’s British-born Thai team mate Alexander Albon qualified fifth.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz had another good Saturday, taking seventh ahead of teenage team mate Lando Norris in eighth with the two Toro Rossos of Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly completing the top 10.
Mexican Sergio Perez qualified 11th for Racing Point. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Clare Fallon and Ken Ferris)