'Heart in my mouth': Rain king Hamilton storms to Styrian Grand Prix pole
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton steers his car during the qualifying for the Formula One Styrian Grand Prix in Spielberg, Austria. AFP
Defending six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton delivered one of his greatest qualifying performances in treacherous rain-swept conditions on Saturday when he stormed to pole position for the Styrian Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver, who struggled in practice on Friday, bounced back to his best with a fastest lap in one minute and 19.273 seconds, outpacing nearest rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull by a stunning 1.2 seconds.
His performance confirmed his enduring class on a day when heavy rainstorms had delayed the session by 45 minutes and forced the cancellation of third practice. It was his third pole success at the Red Bull Ring circuit, the 89th of his career and confirmed his reputation as a great driver in the wettest conditions.
"What a tricky day," said Hamilton. "It was so difficult for all of us with this weather and some of the time you can't see where you are going, but I loved it – though I did have a big aquaplane and had my heart in my mouth."
Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz was third for McLaren ahead of Valtteri Bottas, winner of last Sunday's season-opening Austrian Grand Prix at the same circuit, in the second Mercedes, Esteban Ocon of Renault and Lando Norris in the second McLaren.
Norris, however, will drop three places on the grid after taking a penalty on Friday for ignoring yellow flags in opening practice. That will elevate Alex Albon, who was seventh in the second Red Bull, Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and Daniel Ricciardo, ninth in the second Renault, but leave Sebastian Vettel 10th in the leading Ferrari on another difficult day for the Italian team.
'I can't see a thing'
His team-mate Charles Leclerc qualified 11th. After a 45-minute delay, Q1 began with Vettel first out for Ferrari. Both the four-time champion and Bottas were promptly told that the rain would intensify, making it vital to record a "banker" lap, in case the conditions deteriorated seriously.
"I can't see a thing," said Verstappen as Vettel clocked a time soon trimmed by his rivals, including George Russell of Williams, the best lap time descending rapidly as plumes of spray lifted water off the asphalt.
Having been trapped 19th, Hamilton jumped to the top to be replaced by Leclerc and then Bottas and Verstappen in succession as others, including Ocon and Grosjean, slithered off and recovered. After his travails in Friday's practice, Hamilton was sensational. "Just leave me to it," he told his engineer on team radio as he pulled clear before Antonio Giovinazzi crashed at Turn 10, recovered and then parked his Alfa Romeo.
His exit brought red flags out with seconds remaining, a move that meant early elimination for both the Italian and his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen along with Sergio Perez of Racing Point, Williams rookie Nicholas Latifi and Romain Grosjean of Haas.
Perez had been fastest in opening free practice on Friday morning. All this meant Russell delivered Williams' first Q2 appearance since the 2018 Brazilian Grand Prix, a welcome tonic for the struggling former champions.
Vettel was first out for Q2, but without the pace to worry the front-runners as Verstappen duelled with Hamilton and both Ferraris struggled, Leclerc failing to make the top-ten cut. The Monegasque qualified 11th one place ahead of the remarkable Russell, claiming his career-best starting spot, ahead of Lance Stroll's Racing Point, Daniil Kvyat of Alpha Tauri and Kevin Magnussen of Haas.
Verstappen led the way in the final shootout. "There's a lot more water down," warned Hamilton as the Dutchman clocked 1:21.800 to set the pace, his extreme wet tyres visibly shedding water.
Hamilton then took control with a surge of rapid laps before the Dutchman responded but spun off in a final flurry of late high-speed action.