The history books still beckon for Lewis Hamilton at Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix but after nail-biting tension in qualifying, nothing is a given in Sochi. With 90 victories Hamilton is tantalisingly close to matching Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 and will start from pole on Sunday, but after a qualifying session that left him a second away from being eliminated from the top 10 he is in a far from ideal position for the race.
The world champion was indomitable on his quickest laps but came close to failing to make the final session. His experience, control and composure told, however, as he refocused to nail pole, albeit at a cost he fears may give the advantage to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was second and his Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, in third.
“It was one of the hardest qualifying sessions I can remember,” Hamilton said. “Everything was rushed and there was panic and all sorts going on.
“Going on the second run in Q2 and then having to calm myself and find my centre and calm my heart down and wanting to deliver. I was adamant I had to deliver on those two laps. I needed to have a perfect lap to get the pole.”
His afternoon was proceeding serenely until going wide at turn 18 on his hot lap in Q2 meant his time was deleted for exceeding track limits. A clean run on the second lap was vital but thrown into doubt after Vettel crashed midway through Hamilton’s lap, causing the session to be stopped.
On the restart there were two minutes 15 seconds remaining for Hamilton to be able to set a time. He made the start line with one second to spare. “Need to go, need to go,” said race engineer Peter Bonnington as Hamilton rounded the final corner. On tyres that had not properly warmed up, the Briton then had to negotiate a high-pressure lap to claim a top-10 place.
Having nailed it, he brought all the experience he has accumulated over 14 seasons and six world championships to put the chaotic moments behind him and deliver some untouchable laps. On the final runs in Q3 Hamilton was hooked up perfectly, particularly strong through the middle sector. He finished with an outstanding 1min 31.304sec.
Verstappen delivered a bravura final sector to split the two Mercedes, but was still five-tenths back.
The drama in Q2 could prove costly, however. Mercedes switched to the soft tyres to make that final run and he will now have to start the race on them. The preferred strategy would be a one stop on the medium and hard rubber. Bottas put his time in on the medium tyre and Verstappen will also start on the medium.
Hamilton first faces a challenge on the long drag to the first breaking zone at turn two, where his two rivals may gain a decisive tow behind him and acknowledged he would be up against it on strategy.
“I am going to focus on my race and try and do the fastest race I can,” he said. “I am on the worst tyre to start the race. It has the biggest degradation. I don’t know if it puts me on to a two-stop. I am going to sit down tonight to try and figure out if there is a different kind of race I can do to keep my position.”
Hamilton has won four of the six races held in Sochi and has shown mighty pace this weekend, but the world champion has his work cut out if he is to match Schumacher this time around. Having made it through a tense curtain-raiser, the main event still has potential for even greater drama.
Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez was in fourth and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo in fifth. Charles Leclerc and Vettel were in 11th and 15th for Ferrari.
Carlos Sainz was in sixth for McLaren with his teammate, Lando Norris, in eighth. Esteban Ocon was in seventh for Renault, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly in ninth and Red Bull’s Alexander Albon in 10th.
George Russell once more did well to make it into Q2 and finished in 14th for Williams. Daniil Kvyat was in 12th for AlphaTauri, with Lance Stroll in 13th for Racing Point.
Haas’s Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were in 16th and 18th. Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Räikkönen were in 17th and 20th. Nicholas Latifi was in 19th for Williams.