Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton claimed his 96th pole position by a huge 0.563s from Max Verstappen for the Russian Grand Prix, despite coming within a matter of seconds of being knocked out of Q2 in a dramatic qualifying session at Sochi that saw Sebastian Vettel crash heavily to bring out the red flags.
Hamilton had his Q2 time deleted for a track limits infringement leaving him in the drop zone when Vettel crashed at Turn 4 with just over two minutes left of the session, bringing out the red flags.
When the session was restarted, Hamilton crossed the line with less than two seconds to spare to begin his flying run – his last chance to get into Q3. He then posted the fourth quickest time to make it to the pole position shoot out.
A stunning first lap in Q3 from the six-time champion then saw him establish a new track record with a 1m 31.391s effort, before the Briton narrowly improved it on his second run to claim what was only his second pole position at the Sochi Autodrom – while Valtteri Bottas, who’d led Q1 and looked fast all weekend, will have been hugely surprised not to at least make the front row, at a track he’s always shone on.
Behind the top three, an excellent effort from Sergio Perez in an update-less Racing Point RP20 saw him claim fourth on the grid, ahead of the Renault of Daniel Ricciardo in fifth – the highest the Australian will ever have started in Sochi – with Perez’s team mate Lance Stroll unable to show what he could do after a mechanical issue saw him drop out in Q2.
Carlos Sainz was the leading McLaren in P6, 1,246s off Hamilton’s pace, ahead of the second Renault and second McLaren of Esteban Ocon and Lando Norris, with the AlphaTauri of Pierre Gasly P9. Alex Albon, meanwhile, will have been disappointed to be starting the race 10th, the Thai driver 1.704s off the pace for Red Bull.
Meanwhile, one cloud on Hamilton’s horizon will be the fact that he’ll start Sunday’s race on soft tyres, with that big crash for Vettel in Q2 – from which the German emerged unhurt, but having dropped out of the segment, along with team mate Charles Leclerc – forcing Hamilton to use the softest rubber to set his time, having had his first effort in the segment deleted. Bottas and Verstappen, meanwhile, will start the race on the mediums, giving them a strategic advantage.
A confident Valtteri Bottas was straight into the 1m 32s on his first flying lap of the session, as he stopped the clocks with a 1m 32.656s. Hamilton ended the segment 0.327s adrift in P2, having had to do a steady second effort after getting his first lap deleted, after bumping over the Turn 2 kerbs on his first flying lap.
There were deletions too for Pierre Gasly, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, meaning those three drivers needed strong final efforts to make it through to Q2. Ultimately only Gasly would do so, ending up P8 as Grosjean and Magnussen ultimately wound up 16th and 18th.
With the track appearing to ramp up significantly, home hero Daniil Kvyat put in a super second effort to end up P3, 0.855s off Bottas’ leading time, with Esteban Ocon fourth and Max Verstappen rounding out the top five.
George Russell put in another starring performance for Williams to end up P13 and ahead of the two Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, both just making it through to Q2 – while Russell was over a second clear of his team mate Nicholas Latifi. Kimi Raikkonen was last, meanwhile, the Finn spinning harmlessly at Turn 2 on his final run.
Knocked out: Grosjean, Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Latifi, Raikkonen
The drivers headed into Q2 reporting drops of rain falling on the Sochi Autodrom. They were light drops, though, and certainly not enough to call the intermediate tyres into action. The mediums, though, were summoned up by Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas – Verstappen only managing to go seventh after the first runs, while a mistake for Bottas at Turn 18 left him just fourth.
Hamilton made a similar mistake at Turn 18 but went even wider than his team mate, with another of his laps getting deleted – and a crucial one on the mediums tyres – as Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo wound up P1 after the first runs, ahead of Sainz and Perez.
Sebastian Vettel was down in P14 and pushing hard to try and improve on his second run when he clonked the kerb at Turn 4, the rear of his SF1000 floating into a spin that saw him connect with the wall – Charles Leclerc following behind just narrowly avoiding his team mate. The red flag was called, meaning that Hamilton, with no time on the board, was under the cosh to get a lap in with 2m 15s off the session remaining.
There were tense moments on the Mercedes pit wall, as the now soft-shod Hamilton then slid off the track on his out-lap of the restart at Turn 2, crossing the line with just 1.25s to spare. He’d ultimately have the pace to go P4 – but crucially will have to start on those soft tyres on Sunday, with Bottas and Verstappen on the more favoured mediums, Verstappen aborting his final run on the softs and leaving Ricciardo top.
A frustrated Leclerc dropped out with his team mate in Q2, while Lance Stroll was unable to attempt a final run, after a mechanical gremlin hit the Canadian as he was queueing in the pit lane, leaving him P13 – Kvyat and Russell also failing to match their Q1 heroics and dropping out.
Knocked out: Leclerc, Kvyat, Stroll, Russell, Vettel
If Hamilton had been rattled by his Q2 issues, he didn’t show it in Q3, his first lap a stunning 1m 31.391s, and a full 0.793s ahead of his team mate in P2, with Verstappen taking P3, narrowly ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who was looking well hooked up around Sochi in the Renault.
Hamilton had a new track record to his name, and Bottas a mountain to climb if he was to topple his team mate for the first time since the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. Ultimately though, as Hamilton improved to yet another track record, a 1m 31.304s, Bottas had no answer.
He looked scrappy on both of his Q3 runs, while a quite brilliant third sector from Verstappen on his final effort saw the Dutchman demote Bottas to P3 at the chequered flag, something that will be hard for the Finn to stomach given Mercedes’ pace advantage this weekend.
So credit to Verstappen, who bagged both P2 and the more advantageous strategy of the two front row starters. But credit also to Sergio Perez, who despite having had to miss out on the RP20’s significant update after Stroll’s Mugello crash put the team on the back foot, claimed a fantastic fourth on the grid, beating Ricciardo by just 0.047s.
In stark contrast to Verstappen, though, Albon could only claim P10, the Thai driver brought back down to Earth with a bump after the high of his Mugello podium.
So, it’s Hamilton who once again claims the upper hand in the Mercedes camp on Saturday. But will the upper hand still be there on Sunday, with the disadvantage of having to run on the soft tyres – and with Bottas behind looking to slipstream him down to Turn 1, and Verstappen with plans to spoil Mercedes’ parade?
The Russian Grand Prix gets under way at 14:10 local time tomorrow – that’s 12:10 GMT. Will we witness Hamilton taking a record-equalling 91st win in Sochi? Or can one of Mercedes’ rivals undo the Silver Arrows’ unbroken run at this track?