There was a familiar team on pole in Brazil – and it was another landmark in their Formula 1 journey. Lewis Hamilton, having claimed his fifth world championship last time out in Mexico, didn’t take his foot off the gas at Interlagos, claiming Mercedes’ 100th pole position in F1 and their fifth in a row here, finishing up less than a tenth of a second ahead of nearest rival Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari.
Vettel trailed the Briton by just 0.093s, but it could get worse for the Ferrari man – he has been summoned by the stewards for allegedly “destroying the scales” at the FIA weighbridge, after failing to turn off his engine as required.
For now though, he joins Hamilton on the front row, followed by the sister Silver Arrow of Valtteri Bottas who completed the top three, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen comfortably drove to fourth on the grid, with the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo unable to get within three-tenths of the Finn. Ricciardo will drop to 11th, though, having been hit with a five-place grid penalty for taking on new power-unit elements this weekend.
Perhaps the surprise of the session was the driver sitting in P7. For most of the weekend, it has been Haas who have been ‘best of the rest’ but it was Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson – taking part in what’s set to be his penultimate F1 race this weekend – who was the quicker of the midfield pack behind the top three teams.
The Swede’s team mate Charles Leclerc came home in eighth, ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, who has been armed with Honda’s Spec 3 engine this weekend and will be looking to get off the line quickly on Sunday.
Who would throw down the gauntlet in the first segment of Brazilian qualifying? Surprisingly it was Red Bull’s Verstappen who topped the opening timesheet, despite being some 0.785s off the pace in Saturday’s third practice session. The Dutchman led the Red Bull charge once again, setting the quickest lap on an evolving track before minor rain showers ultimately hindered his rivals’ chances of going quicker.
Behind the early pacesetter, Ferrari pair Raikkonen and Vettel were like-for-like, both going 0.247s slower, while Hamilton was also narrowly behind. The Briton would have perhaps been surprised to see Haas’ Kevin Magnussen splitting the two Mercedes, with the Dane only 0.010s off the world champion’s pace and ahead of Bottas.
Ricciardo came home seventh in front of Sauber’s Leclerc and Haas’ Grosjean, while the sister Sauber of Ericsson made up the top ten. Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso’s Gasly, who was concerned by the arrival of rain, did enough to reach Q2, along with Force India pair Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who were split by Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin.
And while the rain proved a blessing for some – namely Sirotkin – it was a pain for others, with Renault’s Carlos Sainz suffering a shock Q1 exit, the Spaniard missing out by 0.005s. Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley, who had high hopes this weekend with Honda’s Spec 3 engine, also narrowly missed out (by 0.011s to be precise), while McLaren pair Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne joined Williams’ Lance Stroll in suffering the familiar fate of opening-segment elimination.
Mercedes, having taken pole here for the last four years, gave a reminder of their one-lap pace as Bottas returned to the top of the timesheet, having led the way in Friday’s FP2, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Vettel in a familiar second. It was a positive outcome for the German, though, as his fastest lap came on the more durable soft rubber (rather than the quicker but more fragile supersoft), meaning he will start on the yellow-marked compound on Sunday and will seemingly go for a longer first stint.
Hamilton settled for third place, but the Briton was involved in two incidents during the session. Whilst on an out-lap he nearly veered into the path of Sirotkin as the two appeared to come within inches of causing a nasty accident, while moments later he seemed to impede Raikkonen, somewhat confused by what direction his Ferrari rival was taking.
There was also drama for Vettel during this session, when he was called into the weigh station without setting a time. He clattered into a cone on his entry, and the stewards were not impressed with his actions. He allegedly failed to turn his engine off, then drove off under his own power and, in doing so, “destroyed the scales” – and he has been called in to discuss the incident.
Back to the action and Verstappen finished fourth, with Raikkonen sandwiched between the two Red Bulls, while it was Grosjean who this time led Haas’ ‘best of the rest’ charge by coming home P7. Making up the top ten and reaching Q3 was Sauber pair Leclerc and Ericsson, joining Gasly who finished in P10.
It was an heroic late improvement from Leclerc that meant Magnussen, who boasts a strong Haas package this weekend, failed to reach the top-ten shootout, while Force India’s Perez and Ocon also missed out on a chance to fight it out for pole. Renault have found Interlagos’ challenging final sector a tough ask this weekend, and they were unable to climb out of Q2 as Hulkenberg could only go 14th fastest, with Williams’ Sirotkin finishing up bottom of the pile – although he will move up at least one spot due to Ocon’s gearbox penalty.
A dry track meant the teams were able to give it their all, and that was music to the ears of Hamilton, who wasted no time getting out on a track, and 1m 1.301s after he started his first flying lap, he was sitting pretty at the top of the timesheet.
The recently-crowned 2018 world champion went marginally quicker on his second hot lap, Vettel was unable to close the gap, and that meant a 10th pole position of the season was wrapped up for Hamilton. That is no doubt a huge boost for Mercedes, who know the constructors’ title will also be theirs this season if Ferrari fail to outscore them by 13 points this weekend.
To achieve that they’ll need Bottas to perform and although he was unable to repeat his Q2 exploits by going top, to get his car ahead of the sister Prancing Horse of Raikkonen will no doubt please his boss Toto Wolff.
For Red Bull, they never expected to challenge for pole but they have been encouraged by their long-run pace this weekend so expect them to fight for a podium on Sunday. And there will be contrasting strategies among the top teams on Sunday, with Ferrari starting on the yellow-marked soft rubber while Mercedes and Red Bull are on the supersoft compound.
It was another step in the right direction for Sauber, this time Ericsson leading their charge to a career-best P7 ahead of Leclerc, while Gasly finished up in P10. Ricciardo’s grid penalty, however, means Haas’ Magnussen will start 10th on the grid. All to play for on race day then.