The fans were out in force for home favourite Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone on Saturday afternoon – but in the end it was Mercedes’ other driver who stole the show. In an enthralling qualifying session, Valtteri Bottas beat Hamilton to pole position by just 0.006s – the smallest margin in almost a decade.
Hamilton had been seeking a record seventh pole in his home race, but after making a mistake on his first run, he couldn’t claw back enough time on his second effort, and had to settle for second ahead of a flying Charles Leclerc, the top three covered by just 0.079s.
The Ferrari driver had set two purple sectors on his last Q3 effort, but lost ground in the final sector and will start P3, alongside the man who beat him to victory in Austria two weeks ago – Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
The other Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel – the winner here last year – could only manage the sixth-best time, beaten to fifth by the second Red Bull of Pierre Gasly.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo emerged as best of the rest outside the top three teams, seeing off the challenge of impressive British-born rookies Lando Norris and Alex Albon, who were eighth and ninth for McLaren and Toro Rosso respectively, ahead of the other Renault of Nico Hulkenberg.
But this was a qualifying session that will be remembered for fine margins.
After the sprinkles of rain that fell during FP3, the first segment of qualifying got underway on a dry track, albeit under angry looking skies.
Soft tyres were the order of the day for everyone except Ferrari, who opted for the mediums – not that you would have noticed from the times. Hamilton emerged from the segment in P1, with a track record 1:25.513, but Leclerc was only 0.02s back on tyres that are thought to be half a second slower, giving a glimpse of the Ferrari challenge to come.
Vettel looked less comfortable than his team mate as he came in fifth, switching to the softs midway through but abandoning a lap when it was clear he was safe, behind Verstappen and Bottas.
Falling at the first hurdle were the Williams duo of George Russell and Robert Kubica, the Englishman half a second quicker than his team mate as they finished 19th and 20th. Also eliminated were Racing Point’s Lance Stroll – out in Q1 for the 14th consecutive time – and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, whose own poor run now extends to three straight Q1 exits.
Haas’s Kevin Magnussen, meanwhile, took an early bath for the first time since Mexico last season, as Racing Point’s Sergio Perez saved himself at the death. Magnussen’s elimination was put into even sharper context by the fact he was fifth quickest in Austrian qualifying two weeks ago.
Knocked out: Magnussen, Kvyat, Stroll, Russell, Kubica
As usual, all eyes were on which tyres the top contenders would opt to run in Q2, and therefore start tomorrow’s race with. Both Mercedes and both Red Bulls went with the more durable mediums, as did Leclerc initially – but Vettel stuck with softs, albeit without seeing much boost in performance relative to those around him.
Leclerc set the pace, before switching to softs and improving late on as Ferrari made their race strategy clear. Bottas, second quickest, also bolted on the red-walled tyres late on, but abandoned his effort and will start on mediums, along with team mate Hamilton, who was third quickest in the segment, ahead of the similarly shod Verstappen (in fourth) and Gasly (in sixth).
At the other end of the timesheet there was the usual gargantuan battle to make the Q3 cut, and it was left to two British-born rookies to star – Lando Norris out-qualifying McLaren team mate Carlos Sainz for the seventh time this year as the Spaniard failed to reach Q3 for the third year running at Silverstone.
Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon, meanwhile, made it into Q3 for the second time in his career, as the Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean’s Haas and Perez’s Racing Point joined Sainz’s McLaren in taking no further part.
Knocked out: Giovinazzi, Raikkonen, Sainz, Grosjean, Perez
So, who would rule in the top 10 shootout? Would it be a fifth consecutive home pole for Hamilton or a first for Bottas, who had never qualified in the top three at Silverstone? Over the first runs, it was Bottas with an edge of 0.25s as Hamilton made a clear mistake at Brooklands. Ferrari, meanwhile, were only fourth and sixth after the first runs – Leclerc admitting he’d made an error ‘trying something’. He’d be a lot closer after the second runs…
Bottas and Hamilton were the first to play their hands, with the home fans – on their feet as Hamilton came past on his out lap – groaning audibly as the Briton missed out on pole by just 0.006s as he improved and Bottas didn’t.
So, Mercedes were set to hold onto their record of taking every pole at Silverstone since 2013 – or were they? As the fans sat back down in their seats, Leclerc was rapidly clocking purple sectors and he arrived in the final complex of turns ahead. But in the left-right of Club Corner and short shoot to the line the Ferrari driver lost his advantage, and ended up third – albeit just 0.079s off pole.
An incredibly close battle then, which bodes well for Sunday’s race, with Leclerc having the potential to be a real thorn in Mercedes’ side, starting on the clean side of the grid with a soft tyre advantage.
Lights go out at 14:10 tomorrow at Silverstone, with the 2019 British Grand Prix set to be fought out over 52 high-speed laps. Ferrari won here last year – can they spring a surprise on Mercedes and do it again?