Sebastian Vettel tore up the F1 script and denied Lewis Hamilton a slice of history as he grabbed pole position for the Singapore Grand Prix with a brilliant performance on Saturday.
The Ferrari driver gave himself a great chance of a race win and smashed Mercedes’ long-running domination of qualifying when he led the timings by more than half-a-second.
Mercedes cars have been on pole for the last 23 races but they struggled with their grip on the arduous street circuit, with Hamilton down in fifth and Nico Rosberg sixth.
Championship leader Hamilton missed out on equalling Ayrton Senna’s record of eighth straight pole positions, and will now struggle to match his idol’s tally of 41 wins from 161 races.
With Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Raikkonen and Daniil Kvyat starting ahead of him, Hamilton will have to fight past both Ferraris and both Red Bulls to get to the front of the pack.
“It’s a surprise. I thought yesterday they were sandbagging, also this morning because there’s no doubt they have the strongest package this year,” Vettel said of Mercedes.
“They must have some issues, not feeling comfortable at all is the only explanation.”
The four-time world champion clocked 1min 43.885sec on the demanding Marina Bay lay-out to front the F1 grid for the first time in nearly two years.
Ferrari’s first pole position since Germany 2012 made Vettel the strong favourite for Sunday’s race, with five out of seven races in Singapore won from the front of the grid.
– ‘Not a blip’ –
Mercedes have been slow all week but any thoughts they were bluffing evaporated in a difficult session for the championship pace-setters.
Hamilton was briefly quickest in Q1 but he was otherwise not in the reckoning, and had to pit during Q3 after scraping his underbody along a kerb.
Mercedes have dominated F1 for two seasons but Vettel, who experienced a similar spell with Red Bull before switching to Ferrari, said Saturday’s result was more than a blip.
“I expect it to be a pattern. They’ve been way too comfortable, too strong, for a long time,” said the German.
Kvyat led Q1 but McLaren’s Jenson Button scraped into Q2 by just 74 thousandths of a second when he secured 15th quickest in the first qualifying session.
Carlos Sainz effectively brought Q2 to a close when he hit a wall late in the session, leaving bodywork on the track and bringing out the yellow flags ordering cars to slow down.
In the top-10 shoot-out, Ricciardo was on top early on but he was quickly usurped by Vettel, who further lowered his time in the dying minutes with a lightning lap of 1min 43.885sec.
Hamilton blamed his tyres’ “weird” lack of grip for an off-key qualifying session, and admitted Mercedes could find it hard to make up the gap on Sunday.
“The goal’s to still win the race, but it’s very hard to overtake here and the others, particularly the Red Bulls, were incredibly quick through the long runs,” he told Sky Sports.
“It is what it is. We’ll fight as hard as we can but I doubt we’ll find something between now and tomorrow. But if we do, great.”
With another six races after Singapore, the Briton enjoys a 53-point lead in the standings over his team-mate Rosberg, with Vettel lying third a further 21 points back. – Agence France-Presse