JIADING, Shanghai, China — Despite the best efforts of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton was able to grab pole for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, setting the all-time fastest lap of 1:31.678 on his way to his 64th pole position, just one away from his hero Ayrton Senna, and joined Senna and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to score six poles at more than one circuit. The pole was also Mercedes’ 75th pole from 150 Grand Prix starts.
“Yeah, it’s been an interesting weekend so far, obviously without testing yesterday,” “Today was a real challenge for all of us in the sense that we had to compile a lot of yesterday’s testing into this morning and hope we’d hit the nail on the head with the balance of the car. But the Ferraris have looked so fast, through practice this morning and then through each qualifying session. Thank you. Yeah, it’s been an interesting weekend so far, obviously without testing yesterday. Today was a real challenge for all of us in the sense that we had to compile a lot of yesterday’s testing into this morning and hope we’d hit the nail on the head with the balance of the car. But the Ferraris have looked so fast, through practice this morning and then through each qualifying session.”
“We knew it was going to be close, and it was going to mean we would have to pull out all the stops and really have a very, very perfect lap, you know, a solid lap. I managed to just chip away at it from session to session. No major issues. But the last lap was my best lap, which is always the plan – sometimes it’s in another session. The lap started off not as good as perhaps the Q1 first lap but then the rest of the lap got better and better – I think it may have been tyre temperatures or something, who knows. It felt strong and then obviously coming into the last corner knowing I was up a couple of tenths… it’s always nervous going into Turn 14 because you want to break late and gain some but you don’t want to throw away everything you’ve gained.”
With heavy fog limiting Friday’s practice, the conditions improved somewhat for the first session of qualifying. Lance Stroll’s Williams was the first car out in the 20-minute session.
Stroll set the early fast time with a 1:35.136, which would be eclipsed by Sebastian Vettel with a 1:33.078. Stroll jumped up to fifth towards the end, 0.908 seconds slower than Vettel.
Romain Grosjean spun coming out of Turn 16 due to a puncture of his left-rear tire. There was no serious damage, and Grosjean was able to qualify just 17th.
“The second lap was looking pretty good, was aiming for P10,” Grosjean said. “Then Giovinazzi crashed coming out of the last corner and I couldn’t complete the lap.”
Max Verstappen was not having a good Q1, complaining that there “something didn’t sound right” with the engine. The Dutchman pulled into the pits and stopped by the FIA weigh station. He would register a time more than 20 seconds slower than the fastest time. He would go out with 1:20 left in the session, but would not make it into Q2, only getting as high as 19th.
“Starting from nineteenth on the grid is going to be tough but I think there is rain on the way,” Verstappen said. “There was something misfiring in the engine which meant we were down on power, I tried to do a lap that could at least get me through to Q2 but the issue just wouldn’t let me. The guys will investigate this evening and I’m confident they can resolve it for the race. It is of course very unfortunate but these things happen and we need to move on. A bit of rain tomorrow will definitely help us but I think even in the wet it will be tough to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes.”
McLaren’s Fernando Alonso complained that his car “handled like an animal,” but he was safe into Q2, having set the tenth-fastest time, 1.421 seconds behind Vettel. Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne could only manage 16th, and would not continue further in qualifying.
Sauber’s replacement for Pascal Wehrlein, Italian Antonio Giovinazzi finished the session with a 15th place, but would go no further in the session. Giovinazzi got wide on the kerb coming out of Turn 16, and slammed into the outside tire wall, damaging the car beyond repair. He was unhurt.
“For me it was a disappointing ending to qualifying,” Giovinazzi said. “It was all good until the last corner of my final lap. I was already in Q2 and improving my lap time, but I pushed a bit too much, touched the grass in the exit of the last corner and then lost the rear of the car. I apologize to the team for what happened. Tomorrow I will do my best to put in a good performance.”
The next 15-minute session saw all the big boys come out to play early. The Ferraris were very strong, with both Kimi Raikkonen and Vettel setting the early fast times. Hamilton was 0.015 seconds slower than Vettel, and split the Ferraris early.
Valtteri Bottas jumped Raikkonen for third early on, and though Raikkonen edged closer, it was the Mercedes driver that held the position for most of the session
Alonso was knocking on the door of the Top Ten, but the McLaren-Honda could not, finishing 13th, 0.282 seconds behind Stroll in tenth.
Raikkonen would cement himself at the top of the timesheets with a 1:32.181, the fastest lap ever around the Shanghai International Circuit.
With that statistic in the books, the Top Ten took off for the final 13-minute session.
Despite letting the Mercedes step out slightly, Hamilton set the early quick time with a 1:31.902. Vettel was only 0.164 seconds off Hamilton’s time.
The teams all huddled around the machines in the garage with little over five minutes left, getting ready for one last blistering run. The order of the top four at the five-minute mark was Mercedes (Hamilton), Ferrari (Vettel), Mercedes (Bottas) and Ferrari (Raikkonen). Daniel Ricciardo was fifth, 1.3 seconds off of Hamilton in his Red Bull.
The combatants all went out once more, with Hamilton going out first ahead of Bottas. The Ferraris were next, Vettel ahead of Raikkonen.
One minute left, and Hamilton began his final lap, going purple in sector two. He continued his strong run, gaining pole with the 1:31.678. Bottas gave Mercedes a provisional 1-2 for about five seconds before Vettel snagged it at the death by one-thousandth of a second
1. Lewis Hamilton
2. Sebastian Vettel
3. Valtteri Bottas
4. Kimi Raikkonen
5. Daniel Ricciardo
6. Felipe Massa
7. Nico Hulkenberg
8. Sergio Perez
9. Daniil Kyvat
10. Lance Stroll
11. Carlos Sainz
12. Kevin Magnussen
13. Fernando Alonso
14. Marcus Ericsson
15. Antonio Giovinazzi
16. Stoffel Vandoorne
17. Romain Grosjean
18. Jolyon Palmer
19. Max Verstappen
20. Esteban Ocon