Sepang: Lewis Hamilton will start Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix from the best place to try to grab back the drivers’ championship lead — pole position.
The reigning world champion clocked the fastest lap ever recorded at the 5.543km circuit in 1min 32.850sec as he comprehensively outpaced teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg by four-tenths of a second in qualifying on Saturday.
It was Hamilton’s third consecutive pole in Malaysia and he heads a first ever all-Mercedes front row at the Sepang International Circuit.
His amazing drive eclipsed the pole position lap record for Sepang set by Juan Pablo Montoya in a Williams way back in 2004.
Hamilton’s trouble-free running in practice and qualifying this week mark a timely return to form for the three-time world champion after his Mercedes teammate Rosberg dominated the last three races to open up an eight-point lead in the drivers’ standings.
But victory for Hamilton means Rosberg will have to finish second to retain his championship lead, and then by only the slenderest of margins: one point.
It is the latest twist in a rollercoaster season where the two Mercedes drivers have traded blows and barbs as they fight for the title from opposite sides of the Silver Arrows’ garage.
Hamilton trailed Rosberg by 43 points after the first four races of the season, only to turn that into a 19-point lead which then evaporated as the German sped to victory in Belgium, Italy and then Singapore two weeks ago.
In the back of Hamilton’s mind however will be that he had been unconvincing in race starts this season, something Rosberg hopes to exploit.
‘On top of it’
“Second place doesn’t mean victory is not possible, we have seen that many times,” Rosberg told reporters after qualifying on Saturday.
But Hamilton warned the best was yet to come after being consistently far quicker than his title rival all weekend.
“Today the car felt fantastic, I really enjoyed the lap,” Hamilton said. “It could have been faster. I don’t feel anything is going to stop us.”
Hamilton’s pace in practice and qualifying Saturday was untouchable, but with Red Bull and Ferrari filling the next two rows on the grid, the three-time world champion feels Sunday’s race is by no means a foregone conclusion or a guaranteed one-two for Mercedes.
“They are going to be very quick, they’ve been quick all weekend,” he said of the threat from Red Bull and Ferrari. “It will be close, for sure, because they have very strong long runs.
“But when I’m on top of it like I have been this weekend, it generally goes my way on a Sunday. Let’s hope that pattern continues.”
Unless there is rain — always a possibility in tropical Malaysia — tyre choice is not expected to be crucial with most teams thought to favour a two-stop strategy with long stints on the compulsory hard tyre after quick short runs on the soft compound.
Mercedes can clinch their third consecutive constructors’ championship Sunday. They have a 222-point lead over Red Bull with a maximum of 268 to be gained in the remaining six races.