Lewis Hamilton tiptoed his way to pole position for Sunday’s Styrian Grand Prix with one of the most emphatic single-lap performances in recent Formula One memory.
Hamilton has long been considered among the sport’s wet-weather maestros, but here in Austria, the six-time world champion moved to another level by crushing the opposition – his pole lap an astonishing 1.2 seconds faster than second-placed Max Verstappen and 1.4 sec quicker than Valtteri Bottas in identical Mercedes machinery.
By his own admission, Hamilton was off colour in last week’s season opener. He finished fourth after he was penalised for putting Red Bull’s Alexander Albon in the sand trap.
But following a 46-minute delay as heavy rain crashed down on the same Spielberg venue, Hamilton was in a class of one on Saturday, topping all three sessions en route to claiming his 89th career pole and his first in a year where he hopes to match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles. It moved Jenson Button to describe his former team-mate’s display as “extraordinary”.
Verstappen will line up alongside Hamilton on the front row, with McLaren’s Carlos Sainz a career-best third. Bottas, the early championship leader after his win last Sunday, finished fourth.
“It was a fantastic lap,” said Hamilton. “It was really as close to perfect as I could manage out there. You cannot see it, but I am smiling under this face mask.
“It was the worst conditions that we could get these cars round in and it was an incredible challenge. Once we got going it was fine, but the rain got heavier and it was definitely on the limit but that is racing. I am glad they didn’t take it away from us by cancelling qualifying because it was so special being out there.”
“It has been a long, long journey, but I felt at home in the rain today,” he said. “It is difficult for an athlete to explain why they are good at something. I know how good I am and that is the belief that we all have to have inside all of us.
“It is down to focus, how you study the track, the ability to be dynamic and manage the trickiest of conditions. That is what the best athletes in the world do.”
Hamilton is again expected to “take a knee” before Sunday’s race. It is unclear how many of his fellow drivers will join him after six, including Verstappen and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, opted to stand here last weekend.
Hamilton could yet choose to kneel alongside his car rather than at the front of the grid. He appeared to rule out performing the gesture on the podium should he win. “I can’t see myself doing that,” he said. Sources have indicated to the PA news agency that all the drivers are likely to wear anti-racism T-shirts.
Lando Norris was sixth, but the McLaren driver will be pushed back three places on the grid following a yellow-flag infringement in practice.
Compatriot George Russell finished 12th in his uncompetitive Williams. This is a bothersome period for the British team – indeed, Russell’s display marked the first time one of their cars had progressed to Q2 since the Brazilian Grand Prix in 2018 – but the young Englishman is proving a shining light.
Russell, 22, a Mercedes junior driver, is under contract with Williams until the end of 2021. But his performance on Saturday will provide a fresh reminder to Silver Arrows boss Toto Wolff that he must be considered for a seat at the sport’s all-conquering team next year.
Leclerc failed to make it out of Q2 as Ferrari’s early-season struggles continue – with team-mate Sebastian Vettel starting 10th – and will start the race from P14 after receiving a three-place grid penalty.
Leclerc, who had already endured a miserable day on the track, was ruled to have held up AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat during Q2.
The Ferrari driver had also been investigated for a separate incident in which he had allegedly failed to abort his flying lap when the red flags were shown.