SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) — Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton took pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday to tie the record for most qualifying wins by a British driver in Formula One.
Tropical rains delayed the start of qualifying for 50 minutes, but even the wet track at the Sepang International Circuit could not prevent Mercedes continuing the dominance it had shown all weekend as Hamilton made it back-to-back poles to start the new season.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel came close, but the four-time defending champion finished five hundredths of a second behind Hamilton and just in front of Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, who qualified third.
Hamilton’s pole was the 33rd of his career, bringing him level with former world champion Jim Clark for the most by any British driver, and also level with Alain Prost. It also puts him in an ideal position to make up for his early retirement from the season opener in Australia due to an engine misfire.
“I’m really happy with how well we’ve done over the weekend, but today was incredible – how heavy was the rain?” Hamilton said. “It was tricky out there for everyone because at the end it was almost impossible to see. I couldn’t see where the track went, where the corners were, where to break. I had to bail out of my final fast lap, so it was very close.”
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso recovered from a crash that broke his front suspension in the second session of qualifying and will start from fourth on the grid. His teammate Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth, behind Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen, Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and McLaren’s Jenson Button rounded out the top 10.
Vettel’s performance was impressive given Mercedes had been expected to be far too quick in dry or wet conditions. When he saw how narrowly he missed out on pole he quipped to Hamilton “you’re kidding” as they met in the pits, then jokingly tried to nudge Hamilton off the official weighing scales.
It was a good recovery by the Red Bull team after the car had a problem with its energy store electronics during the first session of qualifying, and left the German in bullish mood about being able to take on the Mercedes cars on Sunday, having also retired early in Australia.
“They are the most competitive package, it is difficult to beat them on the day, but not impossible,” Vettel said. “I’m keen to find out where we are and where I am – I haven’t done a race since Brazil last year.”
Rosberg, who won the season opener in Australia, had been fastest in practice on Friday and Saturday and again in Q1, but was not able to match his teammate as the conditions deteriorated.
“I was a little bit less comfortable on the full wets, especially into braking, but third is still a decent place to be,” Rosberg said. “Who knows what the weather is going to do tomorrow?”
There was standing water on the track from a pre-qualifying downpour, and lighter rain continued throughout the sessions to make things difficult for all drivers, who switched back and forth between the intermediate and full-wet tires as they tried to find the right setup for the conditions.
The first session of qualifying ended when Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson went off the track, into a wall, through a brake marker and back onto the track where he was almost hit by Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez.
There was also a red flag in the second qualifying session, when Toro Rosso rookie Daniil Kvyat tried to pass Alonso on the inside of a corner but collided with the Ferrari, leaving debris on the track.