After Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez beached his RB19 in the gravel at Turn 1 due to a brake issue in Q1, Verstappen went on to clinch the 22nd pole position of his F1 career following a blistering final qualifying lap around Melbourne's Albert Park.
At one stage in Q3, Hamilton was leading the way as Mercedes' previously troublesome W14 proved it is not as bad a car as has so far been painted.
But reigning champion Verstappen delivered when it mattered most to clinch the top spot on the grid by 0.236s to Russell, with Hamilton a further 0.136s adrift.
“I'm a little bit surprised,” said Verstappen at the sight of Russell and Hamilton alongside him.
“Maybe they are also a little bit surprised, but I guess it's a good thing.
“It's all about having the tyres in just the right window, and I guess they did a good job with that as well.”
Verstappen nearly gets the bird
Due to the difficulties in generating the required heat in Pirelli's rubber on the circuit's smooth surface, the entire field was forced to engage in the push-pull-push method to set a representative lap time at one time or another.
“The last lap was pretty decent,” added Verstappen. “Up until then, it was just really tricky to find the grip and to try to nail it on one lap.
“The whole weekend has been very tough to get the tyres in the right window to push straight away. You could see everyone was doing either a build-up (lap) or were going faster on the second attempt.
“I only had time in that last run to go out and just go for that first time, and it worked out. So yeah, very happy with that, very happy to be on pole position, and now I'm really looking forward to tomorrow.”
It was a deserved pole given Verstappen was also quickest in the first two qualifying sessions.
Apart from attempting to depose Hamilton late on, his only other moment of angst arrived in Q2 when he was forced to swerve to avoid hitting a bird wandering across the racing line.
“I almost hit a bird, luckily that didn't happen but that happens sometimes on a street circuit,” said the 25-year-old, who is now hoping to eradicate his poor record in Melbourne as he has only finished on the podium once in six visits when he was third in 2019.
“Tomorrow we'll have a good race car,” he added. “But it's quite tricky on the tyres to keep them alive, so it's going to be an interesting race for sure.
“I've been on the podium once but I want to be on a different step this time.”