Lewis Hamilton moved to second on the all-time list for Formula One pole positions when he used a brilliant late surge to beat Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Saturday.
Bottas led qualifying and set an even quicker time on his final lap, only for Hamilton to beat him by nearly half a second.
“There was a lot of pressure with a minute left. It was all or nothing,” Hamilton said. “That was one of the most exciting laps I’ve had all year.”
The British driver’s 66th pole moved him one ahead of Ayrton Senna and just two behind Michael Schumacher’s record of 68.
“It’s already an amazing thing to have matched (Senna). The crazy thing is the hunger for another pole,” Hamilton said. “I thought maybe once I matched him maybe it would fade, but I was hungrier than ever today.”
Given that Hamilton has five poles in eight races so far, Schumacher’s record might be beaten within a month.
Kimi Raikkonen was more than one second behind Hamilton, qualifying third ahead of his Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel.
“I’m not too bothered by the gap. As a team, we got what we could,” said Vettel, the championship leader. “The race pace should be a lot closer on Sunday.”
But after his impressive pole at the Canadian GP two weeks ago, Hamilton gave another commanding performance.
“My last lap in Montreal was pretty special but I think this one topped it,” said Hamilton, who is 12 points behind Vettel.
It was also a sweet moment for his mechanics, considering how difficult Friday’s second practice had been.
“Yesterday we were at a bit of a loss and we had to make a lot of changes overnight,” said Hamilton, who was 10th in P2. “This morning, we didn’t know if those changes were going to be right or not. But the guys did excellent work.”
After three difficult practice sessions, qualifying also proved tough, with Turns 2, 6 and 8 causing most problems. There were close calls for Bottas and Vettel while Force India’s Sergio Perez shaved the barriers on the demanding street circuit.
With three minutes remaining a red flag came up, halting the session, after Daniel Ricciardo clipped the wall with the left side of his Red Bull coming out of Turn 6, prompting an expletive from the Australian driver.
It is only the second time for drivers in Baku, and the tight corners are made even harder by the wider cars this year.
“You’ve got so little margin for error,” Ricciardo said. “Every corner can be a challenge.”
Ricciardo’s teammate, Max Verstappen _ who topped P1 and P2 _ qualified only fifth followed by Perez.
Chasing his second career pole, Bottas was also disappointed.
“I wasn’t quite comfortable with the tire temperature,” said Bottas, who took pole at the Bahrain GP. “Just didn’t get them to work as well as Lewis.”
At the other end of the F1 spectrum, the misery continued for McLaren as Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were eliminated from the first part of qualifying. So were Romain Grosjean (Haas), Marcus Ericsson (Sauber) and Jolyon Palmer (Renault).
Hamilton topped Q1 ahead of Verstappen and Raikkonen. Williams driver Felipe Massa misjudged the difficult approach into Turn 8 and Carlos Sainz Jr. overshot the entry into Turn 2, which happened to several drivers.
Hamilton topped Q2 ahead of Bottas and Vettel.
In Q3, Bottas went close to clipping the wall on Turn 8, and Vettel took an exit road and spun after a braking error.
Baku’s long straights and hard-braking corners proved a real handful, even for the most experienced drivers.