By John O’Brien
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton tightened his grip on securing a fifth Formula One world title by coming from nowhere to claim a stunning pole position for the Singapore Grand Prix in his Mercedes on Saturday.
The Briton, 30 points clear of closest rival Sebastian Vettel with seven rounds remaining, lapped the Marina Bay Street Circuit in 1:36.015 to claim a record-extending 79th pole position, 0.319 seconds ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
The Ferrari pairing of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had set the pace for most of the weekend but the German could manage only third place, more than half a second down, and will start alongside Mercedes’s Valtteri Bottas.
“That lap felt like magic. I don’t really know where it came from,” Hamilton said in an interview.
“It was just perfectly to the limit. It felt like one of the best laps I can remember feeling,” the Briton added, describing the 23-turn floodlit circuit as “Monaco on steroids”.
Hamilton’s time was three-and-a-half seconds quicker than Vettel’s pole position a year ago and should he make a clean start on a circuit where he has won three times before, the Briton is highly likely to extend his championship lead.
Verstappen also sprang something of a surprise to finish just behind Hamilton, narrowly missing out on becoming the youngest ever pole-sitter in Formula One.
The 20-year-old was delighted. “Honestly, this feels like a victory. To be second is unbelievable,” Verstappen said. “We just have to make sure we have a clean start and then everything is possible.”
Vettel is also seeking a fifth world title and while he remains a huge threat in a very competitive car, the German was disappointed not to have been able to capitalise on the dominance Ferrari had over their rivals in practise.
“For us it was a bit of a messy qualifying,” he said. “We had two laps (in the final qualifying session) and they were both not good enough.”
Raikkonen ended in fifth place, almost eight tenths of a second behind Hamilton, the Finn lining up next to Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull. Ricciardo was the only other driver to lap the 5.063 km track in lower than 1:37.000.
Force India’s Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon will start seventh and ninth respectively, while Romain Grosjean is eighth on the grid for Haas with Nico Hulkenberg rounding out the top 10 in his Renault.
Hamilton admitted that Mercedes had been too conservative in their tyre choices for the race and after sneaking through the first phase of qualifying on the slower ultrasoft tyres, the Briton was unstoppable with the high-grip hypersofts on his car.
“I didn’t have a wheelspin, I didn’t have a snap anywhere, the car was just underneath me and I managed to maximise every corner… and I do feel like I got absolutely everything possible on that lap,” Hamilton added.
Ferrari also gambled in the second phase of qualifying by using the more durable ultrasofts, which they would start on in Sunday’s race, but the team aborted the plan when it was fairly obvious they would not advance to Q3.
“The race is a different story and things will not be the same tomorrow but we are, for sure, not happy with how it went today,” a despondent Vettel said.
(Reporting by John O’Brien; editing by Clare Fallon and Tony Lawrence)