SEPANG: Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton splashed through the puddles at a rain-soaked Sepang circuit to secure pole position for Mercedes in a hectic Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
The Briton, who cruised to victory from the front in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix this month, had to battle through traffic just to make the final cut in the second of the three phases and was rewarded with the 40th pole of his career.
Hamilton clocked one minute 48.834 seconds on his first lap of the final showdown and the time resisted all challengers, including Sebastian Vettel, who proved Ferrari’s impressive early-season form was no fluke with a solid second place.
“I think the first lap was good, it’s always difficult in conditions like that and not one of us have driven in the wet this weekend,” Hamilton told reporters.
Four-times world champion Vettel, who looks revitalised since joining the Italian outfit from Red Bull at the end of last year, backed up his third-place finish in Australia with a scintillating final lap to trail Hamilton by just 0.074 seconds.
The German not only broke the Mercedes stranglehold in qualifying by beating a disappointed Nico Rosberg, but he also became the first Ferrari driver to sit on the front row since Felipe Massa at the same circuit in 2013.
“It was an interesting qualifying session, the car felt good in both conditions and the car looked good on long runs in practice. We will see what we can do tomorrow,” said Vettel.
Rosberg will be joined on the second row by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo after a tropical downpour early in the second session forced the drivers to wait in the garage for 35 minutes before the track was safe enough to go out again.
Daniil Kvyat will start in fifth place in the other Red Bull with Toro Rosso’s 17-year-old Max Verstappen joining the Russian on the third row following another impressive afternoon.
Verstappen’s qualifying was the best by a teenager since 19-year-old Mexican Ricardo Rodriguez started on the front row for Ferrari at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix.
It also equalled the career highest grid position of his proud father Jos, at the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix — also in wet conditions.
The first round of qualifying went as expected with Hamilton edging Rosberg in sweltering conditions as dark clouds began to roll ominously over the palm oil plantations that surround the circuit south of the Malaysian capital.
The imminent threat of heavy rain sent the surviving 15 cars scurrying for the front of the pitlane at the start of the second phase, all with the faster medium-compound tyres in order to set quick laps before the heavens opened.
Rosberg and Vettel made it safely to the finish in dry conditions at the head of the field but the traffic behind left Hamilton eighth while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was only 11th and missed the cut.
It was a bitter blow for the Finn, who had been quick all weekend prior to the downpour, but his absence opened the way for Romain Grosjean in a Lotus and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson to enter the top 10.
Grosjean was subsequently dropped two places for a pitlane misdemeanour, lifting Valtteri Bottas to eighth behind Williams team mate Felipe Massa in seventh while Ericsson moved up to ninth. Grosjean will line up 10th.
Down at the back, Fernando Alonso’s return to action following a pre-season testing crash saw him qualify in 18th place, one position behind team mate Jenson Button as both drivers struggled for pace in the Honda-powered McLarens.
Manor Marussia also had a day to forget on their first qualifying action of the season, Spaniard Roberto Merhi was last in his team’s modified 2014 car while team mate Will Stevens was unable to get out of the garage.
Stewards granted both Manor drivers permission to start. (Reuters)