Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton put himself in the best possible position to wrest back the lead in the Formula One championship by claiming pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday.
Hamilton beat his teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by four tenths of a second in qualifying.
The British driver headed Mercedes’ first-ever front-row lockout in Malaysia and set a new Formula One lap record at the Sepang International Circuit with a time of 1 minute, 32.850 seconds.
While Hamilton has been unconvincing in race starts this season, his impressive performance Saturday should provide a timely confidence boost after Rosberg’s hat-trick of race victories in the preceding races.
“Today the car felt fantastic, I really enjoyed the lap,” Hamilton said. “It could have been faster.
“I don’t feel anything is going to stop us (in the race). As a team we have great pace and if you look at the last race, we had pretty good starts and we continuously work on that. That’s not something I’m going to let in my mind. I’m thinking of getting a launch off the grid and the car feels really good on the long runs.”
Rosberg was marginally off Hamilton’s pace throughout his last flying lap and a wobble on the final corner put paid to his pole chances. He denied that he went out on that last lap only targeting second, given Hamilton’s superb time.
“Of course I was going for pole, what else would I be doing out there?” Rosberg said. “It would have been close but I made a mistake going into the last corner.
“Second place, I have to live with that now, it doesn’t mean a victory is not possible tomorrow. I’m still optimistic.”
Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo qualified third and fourth respectively, ahead of the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg were seventh and eighth, followed by McLaren’s Jenson Button ninth for his 300th F1 start, and Felipe Massa of Williams 10th.
While Mercedes will be expected to convert its front row spots into a race win – the team has won all but one race this season, with the exception being caused by a collision between its two drivers – Red Bull and Ferrari had both shown strong race pace in practice, equal to that of the Mercedes.
“We’ve made changes after Singapore and it seemed to work,” Verstappen said. “The long run pace looked promising and I’m very pleased to qualify behind the Mercedes cars.”
Race strategy is not expected to be significant on Sunday, with two pitstops and long stints on the medium and hard tires expected by all runners due to the low levels of tire degradation on the very smooth new surface.
“I don’t think it’s going to be too exciting strategy-wise because the tires are pretty similar,” Rosberg said. “I don’t think it’ll be such a deciding factor.”
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso made no serious attempt to get out of the Q1 qualifying period due to a slew of grid penalties for installing all new engine parts and was going to start last regardless.