Barcelona: Lewis Hamilton roared to a record-increasing 92nd Formula One pole position of his career on Saturday when he outpaced Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas in a sizzling qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix.
The championship leader and six-time world champion clocked a best lap of one minute and 15.584 seconds to take the prime starting slot ahead of title rival Bottas by 0.059 seconds.
It was Hamilton’s fourth pole of the year and fifth in Spain and brought with it his 150th front row start from a session that may have seen Mercedes enjoying their ‘party’ qualifying engine mode for the final time.
“I couldn’t go quicker on my second lap, which I thought I could, but the first lap was a good job thankfully,” said Hamilton.
“I was here with my guys until 10 o’clock (2000 GMT) last night just looking all the details and how to improve because the Red Bull guys are super fast.”
Bottas said: “I knew it was going to be close with Lewis — as always. The start will be my best chance.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who is second in the overall standing 30 points behind Hamilton, was 0.708sec back in third.
The Dutchman was ahead of the two Racing Points of Sergio Perez, back in action after missing two races with coronavirus, and Lance Stroll. Alex Albon took sixth place in the second Red Bull.
“This is our maximum, but I hope we can do better in the race. Tomorrow is a different day again!” Verstappen said.
Carlos Sainz was seventh ahead of his McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri.
On a hot summer’s day at the Circuit de Catalunya, the air temperature was 30 degrees celsius and the track a sweltering 50 degrees as Q1 began with the Williams drivers leading the way.
A gusty wind had arrived since the final practice in the morning, adding another factor to the struggle for grip experienced by most drivers.
Hamilton topped the initial runs ahead of the two rapid Racing Points and stayed on top while Raikkonen, for the first time this year, proceeded to Q2 leaving his Alfa Romeo team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi 20th and last.
The Italian was eliminated along with both Williams drivers, Nicholas Latifi and George Russell, Romain Grosjean and his Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen.
The Q2 segment started with both Mercedes out early on soft tyres, Hamilton pipping Bottas by one-tenth of a second before Verstappen, half a second down, went third and Sainz fourth.
The second run was preceded by desultory preparation laps, as they preserved their soft tyres, before in the final seconds Gasly jumped to fifth and, in the process, dumped the luckless Sebastian Vettel out of the top 10 shoot-out by 0.002 seconds.
The four-time world champion was 11th ahead of Daniil Kvyat of Alpha Tauri, Daniel Ricciardo of Renault, Raikkonen and Esteban Ocon, in the second Renault.
“It must be one of the most difficult challenges he has faced in his career,” observed 2016 champion Nico Rosberg, talking on Sky Sports F1 of Vettel’s plight as he struggles to recover his form.
In Q3, Hamilton was fastest again on the opening runs, securing provisional pole ahead of Bottas by 0.059 with Verstappen third, seven-tenths adrift of the champion — a gap that may be reduced next time with the likely ban on ‘party’ modes for qualifying.
Bottas did his utmost on his second run, but it was not enough to overhaul Hamilton’s lap time and the Briton was on pole before he completed his flying lap.