Charles Leclerc produced another spectacular performance to take pole position for the Russian Grand Prix.
The 21-year-old took his fourth pole in a row for Ferrari as Lewis Hamilton pipped Leclerc’s team-mate Sebastian Vettel to second, 0.402secs adrift of Leclerc.
Hamilton beat Vettel by just 0.023secs with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fourth ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
Verstappen has a five-place grid penalty and will drop down to ninth on the grid as McLaren’s Carlos Sainz was sixth.
Hamilton was thrilled to be second on a track where Mercedes did not expect to be able to beat a Ferrari over one lap, and his achievement was a mark of the quality of the world champion’s lap, which was 0.602secs quicker than Bottas.
But the star of the show was Leclerc, the first driver to take four consecutive poles since Hamilton at the end of 2016, and the first Ferrari driver to do so since Michael Schumacher in 2001.
Leclerc said: “The car felt amazing and it feels great to be back on pole but I don’t know whether it is the best track to start on pole – the straight is very long after the start.
“It feels very, very special but I don’t want to think about stats for now. I just want to focus on the job. There is a long way to go tomorrow and it is a good start. we have been competitive all weekend and the race simulation seems good too.”
Mixed up race strategies
The race is nicely poised, with Mercedes choosing a different tyre strategy from Ferrari, picking the more durable medium tyre to start the race, rather than the soft.
The choice was informed by Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage, which means that Mercedes believe they will struggle to pass the red cars on the track and will have to try to beat them on strategy instead.
Hamilton said: “I tell you, it was a tough qualifying session. These guys have some crazy speeds on the straights. I gave it everything I had at the end and I am so glad it came together. I wasn’t expecting to get on the front row, that’s for sure.”
“They are on a lower drag level plus they have that power so we had to try something. The team have done a really good job with putting us in that position. It is a long way down to Turn One and it’s not the best to start on the harder tyre. But I will try to tow the hell out of Charles down to Turn One.
Vettel, who won the last race in Singapore but has now been beaten by Leclerc in qualifying for nine races in a row, said: “I am not entirely happy. I couldn’t extract the absolute maximum out of the car. The speed is there so let’s keep it up.”
Red Bull set for race fight
Verstappen has shown good pace all weekend and cannot be discounted but faces the task of battling up to the front following his grid drop.
McLaren bounced back well from a difficult Friday to emerge as best of the rest in a very tight midfield fight, just 0.067secs ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and 0.079secs quicker than his McLaren team-mate Lando Norris, as Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo completed the top 10.
The second Red Bull of Alexander Albon had a torrid time, crashing out of the first session after a difficult weekend and he will start 19th.