Defending six-time F1 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 1: 19.273 seconds, outpacing nearest rival Max Verstappen of Red Bull by a stunning 1.2 seconds and a further two-tenths up on his teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton’s performance – in the mould of his idol and great qualifier Ayrton Senna – 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,” reflected Hamilton afterwards.. “It was the worst conditions we could probably get these cars around in. It was an incredible challenge. I’m grateful that we go to do qualifying because we missed the morning session.
“It’s a real challenge for everyone, naturally we’re all in the same boat. Visibility was very, very… minimal. Making sure you get in the gap and putting the laps together when I counted was really the key.
“But the team did a great job in terms of the positioning, in terms of the information I was getting and I felt pretty much at home in the rain today. Grateful, that’s for sure.
It was touch and go that the session would be called off, in the end and quite surprisingly the teams were told the session was to happen when there were still some doubts from those watching from the sidelines including some team personnel.
Hamilton acknowledged, “The officials definitely have a difficult job the majority of the time and particularly on a day like this, knowing when to go and when to choose not to let the cars run – but I’m grateful they did. Just as we came to qualifying.
“Obviously it was drying up – or it wasn’t raining for a while – and just as everyone got in the car it started to rain again. And so we obviously had that bit of a pause. But once we got going it was fine for the first session. Then it did get worse – but I’m glad that they allowed us to stay out.
“It was definitely on the limit – but that’s racing! I’m glad they didn’t take that away from us because today, it’s so special being out there, it’s so difficult. I don’t know how it comes across on the cameras but it is the hardest conditions that we ever drive in.
“Just one small lapse of concentration and you’re off. And it can be big or small. More chance of it being a big one. So, yeah, I’m grateful for that.”
In terms of how it ranks with his other standout qualifying performances, the Mercedes driver said, “It’s been a long, long journey. Honestly, it was a fantastic lap, the last one. I think just the importance of managing your time out there, managing your battery pack, knowing when to use the few laps that you have on the qualifying modes, creating the gap, not making a mistake when it counts.
“That was a lap. Obviously the lap that I had before I think was good enough but that last lap of me was really as close to perfect as I could get it in those conditions. And considering it was raining more, it makes me even happier knowing that I went a little bit quicker during that time.
“It definitely takes me back to times like Silverstone 2008 because, when you’re really at one with the car and you’re not phased at all; you have to be very dynamic with your driving style from corner to corner because the wet patches arrive, the puddles are shifting about with the cars that are driving ahead of you, which is a massive challenge.
“I’m smiling under this mask. Super happy,” added the six-time F1 World Champion. (Additional Reporting: AFP)