Runaway Formula One series leader Lewis Hamilton emerged from a “horrible” red-flagged qualifying session at Sochi on Saturday with a stunning pole position for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
In a crash-hit session the Mercedes six-time champion held his nerve to clock a best lap in one minute and 31.304 seconds to outpace Max Verstappen of Red Bull by half a second.
His Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, 55 points behind Hamilton in the title race, was third-quickest with Sergio Perez of Racing Point sharing the second row.
Hamilton is bidding to claim his fifth win at the Sochi track where Mercedes have dominated winning all six races since 2014.
If he translate pole into victory, he will equal Michael Schumacher’s career record of 91 Grand Prix wins.
The action was interrupted for 10 minutes in Q2 when four-time champion Sebastian Vettel crashed his Ferrari – he was unhurt and climbed from his wrecked car – leaving Hamilton, only 15th fastest, racing against the clock to reach Q3.
In close liaison with his team, he squeezed through with only seconds remaining before going on to take pole with a flawless fastest lap.
On a topsy-turvy day, Hamilton was called to the stewards, along with three other drivers, after the session for missing bollards at Turn Two during Q2.
“It was one of the worst qualifying sessions,” said Hamilton.
– ‘Heart in my mouth’ –
“It was horrible, heart in my mouth the whole way. I lost my first (Q2) lap by going wide for the first time this weekend and I wanted to stay out for another lap.
“They said I had new tyres, but then there was the red flag. It was a risk and ultimately I am starting on the soft tyre which is not good.
“I will probably get out-dragged as this is one of the worst places to start from pole and the two drivers I am racing are on the other tyre.”
Verstappen is counting on a quick start.
“On the final run, it wasn’t too bad – to be second, I didn’t expect it. If we have a decent start, the tow effect is very big so who knows what can happen at Turn Two!”
Bottas said: “I just couldn’t go any quicker in the end, but P3 is a good place to start here and I think I am on the right tyre.”
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was fifth, Carlos Sainz sixth for McLaren, ahead of Esteban Ocon in the second Renault, Lando Norris in the second McLaren, Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and Alex Albon in the second Red Bull.
The second runs had brought immediate drama when Kimi Raikkonen spun at the troublesome Turn Two, wrecking his hopes of a good position for his record-equalling 322nd start.
Hamilton swiftly put in a 1:32.085, but it was deleted for exceeding the limits at Turn 18, forcing him to do it all again.
Vettel’s smash thankfully looked far worse than it turned out, with the German even picking up a stray wing of his Ferrari and helpfully handing it back to the officials attending his stricken car.
For Ferrari it might have been worse, but Leclerc – on a fast lap behind his team-mate – managed to slow and veer between Vettel and his debris.
After the delay, Hamilton faced a race against the clock to deliver a timed lap, on cold softs, and did so within 1.25 seconds to go fourth.
His lap pushed Leclerc down to 11th and out of the ‘top ten shootout’ along with Kvyat, Lance Stroll of Racing Point, Russell and Vettel.
Ricciardo led the way into Q3, but it was the Mercedes men who roared back to life, ahead of the final dramas.
Sunday’s race is due to be watched by the biggest sporting crowd in the Covid-19 era with 30,000 fans allowed to attend.
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