Lewis Hamilton has put himself in the box-seat for a hat-trick of race victories by mastering the wet conditions in Shanghai to take pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix, heading Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel.
The 34th pole of the Briton’s career, his third of 2014, was thoroughly dominant, as he topped each phase of qualifying with a margin over the Red Bull pair and the sister Mercedes of Nico Rosberg.
However, come the top ten shoot-out and Hamilton stepped up a gear, initially holding provisional pole by 6/10ths of a second over the pack as the intermediate tyre reluctantly began to offer some grip. With the gap closed first by Vettel and then Ricciardo, an improvement of 4/10ths saw Hamilton hold off his pursuers with a 0.6s margin.
It set a new British record for pole positions,
“This weekend started out with some troubles in P1 (practice 1),” said Hamilton, referring to the almost 30 minutes of track time lost to suspension issues. “We made changes overnight, in anticipation of a dry day today. I love this track in the wet anyway. Our car is great, there is a long straight down the back which helps us relative to the others.”
A wet final free practice session this morning had been expected to carry on through the afternoon, meaning in little running during practice and the field unsure of the pacesetters heading in to qualifying.
Mercedes, Red Bull and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso rose to the top.
Last time out in Bahrain Hamilton made an error on his final qualifying lap and was unable to challenge Rosberg’s pole time, but today it was Rosberg’s turn to make an error, locking up in to the penultimate corner and losing a time which would have given him a front-row start. He had been 4/10ths up on Hamilton’s benchmark at the time.
The German will therefore join Vettel on the second row and look to use his power advantage to out-drag his countryman into the first turn.
For Alonso, who has been on the pace for the duration of the weekend in dry conditions, the appearance of rain proved to be a small disadvantage but nevertheless kept the Spaniard within touching distance of the cars ahead. In front of his new team boss, Alonso will be in favour, more so than Kimi Raikkonen who could only manage eleventh place.
The third wet qualifying session in the four races of 2014 will not have pleased Williams prior to the session. Their wet pace has not been as competitive as in the dry, but a sixth and seventh place start for tomorrow’s race, with Felipe Massa beating Valtteri Bottas, gives the team a chance to gain points on Force India and McLaren.
Force India had a mixed day, with Nico Hulkenberg taking eighth place in another strong display a Sergio Perez found himself down in sixteenth. They currently sit second in the Constructors’ Championship, a position which they could likely lose this weekend to Red Bull but will feel it is important to maintain their lead over McLaren.
The Woking squad had a poor day with Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen unable to improve on the intermediate tyre in Q2 as the rain increased and ended the day in twelfth and fifteenth respectively.
A surprise appearance in Q3 was made by Romain Grosjean, the Frenchman having his strongest qualifying of 2014 to take tenth place, whilst Pastor Maldonado did not take part in the session due to power-unit issues.
Meanwhile it escaped the notice of no-one that this was the third time in four races that Daniel Ricciardo had out qualified his four time world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel.
“It was really good,” said an ecstatic Ricciardo. “Only the last set of tyres in Q3 I managed to pull something out. The rest of the session I wasn’t particular comfortable. That last lap I put it all out there and got the lap.
“In the dry we still have good pace, the Mercedes are quicker, but I’ll keep my head down on the straight and try to catch up. The long runs look promising but whether it’s good enough (to challenge Mercedes) I don’t know.”
Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, Qualifying
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m53.860s
2. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1m54.455s +0.595s
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1m54.960s +1.100s
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m55.143s +1.283s
5. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m55.637s +1.777s
6. Felipe Massa Williams 1m56.147s +2.287s
7. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m56.282s +2.422s
8. Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1m56.366s +2.506s
9. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m56.773s +2.913s
10. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m57.079s +3.219s
11. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m56.860s +2.831s*
12. Jenson Button McLaren 1m56.963s +2.934s*
13. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1m57.289s +3.260s*
14. Adrian Sutil Saube 1m57.393s +3.364s*
15. Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1m57.675s +3.646s*
16. Sergio Perez Force India 1m58.264s +4.235s*
17. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m58.988s +3.472s**
18. Kamui Kobayashi Caterham 1m59.260s +3.744s**
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m59.326s +3.810s**
20. Marcus Ericsson Caterham 2m00.646s +5.130s**
21. Max Chilton Marussia 2m00.865s +5.349s**
22. Pastor Maldonado Lotus