Peerless Lewis Hamilton waited out a torrential downpour before snatching pole position at the Malaysian Grand Prix in a wet and wild qualifying session on Saturday.
The Mercedes driver and reigning world champion set a fastest time of 1min 49.834sec, ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, after rain halted qualifying for 35 minutes.
The commanding drive from Hamilton, hit by mechanical problems this week, will fuel his charge towards a second race win after he dominated the season-opener in Australia.
Vettel was the day’s other big winner and he whooped and hollered to his team as he seized second place from Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg in the dying seconds.
Rosberg was relegated to third on the grid, ahead of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat, with 17-year-old Max Verstappen starting from sixth in Sunday’s race.
“It was a fantastic job for the team to have us both (Hamilton and Rosberg) up here again,” a delighted Hamilton said.
Thunder rumbled overhead, lightning was seen in the distance and dark clouds rolled over the Sepang circuit as Hamilton and Rosberg led the field in Q1.
But McLaren’s stormy start to the year showed no sign of easing as former world champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso were among the five drivers to miss the cut into Q2.
The rain was torrential as Q2 started and as drivers took to the garages, unable to improve on their times, 11th-placed Kimi Raikkonen missed out on the top 10 shoot-out.
Mechanics mopped the pitlane while the Q3 shoot-out was delayed and when the rain finally eased, the cars emerged on a variety of tyres.
– Rosberg ‘annoyed’ –
Hamilton shot to the top of the board, more than a second quicker than Rosberg, before the team-mates and fierce rivals both pitted for a fresh set of intermediate tyres.
Hamilton was unable to improve on his time but Rosberg paid the price for a sticky Q3 when Vettel beat him into second place with 1:49.908 at the death.
“I just didn’t drive well enough, I’m annoyed by that,” Rosberg frowned. “Third place is not good for tomorrow but that’s the way it is.”
Vettel said Ferrari should be in “good shape” on Sunday as he eyes his chance to challenge dominant team Mercedes.
“We know that they are difficult to beat ultimately that’s why everyone turns up, trying to win and we’ll see what we can do tomorrow,” he said.
Rain has played spoiler in Malaysia before. In 2012, the race was halted for nearly an hour and in 2009, it lasted just 31 laps before being stopped and awarded to Button.
Weather conditions could again shake up Sunday’s grand prix, although an earlier start of 3:00 pm (0700 GMT) is thought to ease the chances of another rain interruption.
New team Manor finished bottom of qualifying and outside the required time, with Will Stevens not even getting on to the track.
But the stewards gave both drivers special leave to compete in their first grand prix, after they were unable even to get out of the garage in Australia.
French driver Romain Grosjean was hit with a two-place penalty for a pitlane infringement and will start 10th in his Lotus.
Qualifying results from the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday (Q = qualified):
1. Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1min 49.834sec
(average speed: 181.681 km/h)
2. Sebastian Vettel (GER/Ferrari) 1:49.908
3. Nico Rosberg (GER/Mercedes) 1:50.299
4. Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/Red Bull-Renault) 1:51.541
5. Daniil Kvyat (RUS/Red Bull-Renault) 1:51.951
6. Max Verstappen (NED/Toro Rosso-Renault) 1:51.981
7. Felipe Massa (BRA/Williams-Mercedes) 1:52.473
8. Romain Grosjean (FRA/Lotus-Mercedes) 1:52.981
9. Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Williams-Mercedes) 1:53.179
10. Marcus Ericsson (SWE/Sauber-Ferrari) 1:53.261
Eliminated in Q2
11. Kimi Raikkonen (FIN/Ferrari) 1:42.173
12. Pastor Maldonado (VEN/Lotus-Mercedes) 1:42.197
13. Nico Hulkenberg (GER/Force India-Mercedes) 1:43.022
14. Sergio Perez (MEX/Force India-Mercedes) 1:43.468
15. Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP/Toro Rosso-Renault) 1:43.700
Eliminated in Q1
16. Felipe Nasr (BRA/Sauber-Ferrari) 1:41.308
17. Jenson Button (GBR/McLaren-Honda) 1:41.636
18. Fernando Alonso (ESP/McLaren-Honda) 1:41.746
19. Roberto Merhi (ESP/Marussia-Ferrari) 1:46.677
20. Will Stevens (GBR/Marussia-Ferrari) no time
– Agence France-Presse