Hamilton flies in qualifying to secure Russian GP pole

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Lewis Hamilton has secured pole position for tomorrow’s Russian Grand Prix after fending off stiff competition from teammate and championship rival Nico Rosberg during qualifying in Sochi today.

The British driver posted a fastest lap time of 1:38.513 to finished two-tenths of a second clear of Rosberg, but Williams’ Valtteri Bottas very nearly spoiled the party, finishing third after running wide on his final and quickest lap time.

Formula 1 has arrived in Sochi this weekend with a heavy heart following Jules Bianchi’s accident in Japan. The Frenchman remains in hospital in a critical but stable condition, and is the foremost thought for the entire paddock this weekend.

In a mark of respect for its driver, Marussia has opted to race with just one car this weekend in Russia, meaning that 21 cars took to the track for qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

With track evolution and grip being critical around the new Sochi Autodrom circuit, most of the drivers opted to immediately head out in Q1 on the option tire in search of the quickest possible lap time. Jenson Button was one of the few to buck the trend, and did momentarily sit in first place on the medium tire but was soon bumped off as Rosberg and Hamilton resumed normal service for Mercedes in first and second place respectively.

Instead of pitting early, the drivers opted to stay out and continue to learn the circuit as it became faster and faster. Felipe Massa was the shock exit in Q1 after a problem developed on his Williams, leaving him down in 18th position come the checkered flag. Marcus Ericsson put in a good lap to finish 17th, just one-tenth of a second off a place in Q2, with Caterham teammate Kamui Kobayashi finishing 19th ahead of Pastor Maldonado and Max Chilton.

Picking up where he left off in Q1, Hamilton immediately established his dominance in the second part of qualifying by going six-tenths faster than the field, leaving his rivals searching for time. Although Rosberg did cut the gap to 0.2 seconds, he still found himself staring down the barrel of a defeat ahead of Q3.

One man who didn’t expect to be missing the final session was Sebastian Vettel, who struggled for pace and finished down in 11th place. The German driver was eliminated alongside the Force India pair of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, who qualified 12th and 13th respectively ahead of the two Sauber drivers and Romain Grosjean.

Q3 saw the field head out early to try and find some heat and increase grip on their tires, but Rosberg sent out a statement of intent by going fastest of all ahead of Bottas and Button as Hamilton opted to bide his time before posting his optimum lap.

With three minutes to go, Hamilton finally found his feet to move to the top of the timesheets, but Rosberg could not respond after making a mistake on his hot lap. Both had one more shot in their battle for pole position, and Hamilton made his count, enjoying a lead of two-tenths of a second at the flag.

However, Bottas very nearly upset the odds, going fastest of all in sectors one and two before running wide at the final corner, leaving him third. Jenson Button proved that McLaren’s practice form was genuine, qualifying fourth ahead of home favorite Daniil Kvyat.

Kevin Magnussen qualified sixth for McLaren, but will drop to P11 due to his grid penalty. Daniel Ricciardo finished seventh ahead of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, with Jean-Eric Vergne rounding out the top ten.

In a close qualifying session, it was Hamilton who made it count once again to secure his seventh pole position of the season. With victory tomorrow, he could move into a 17-point lead at the top of the drivers’ championship, taking him ever closer to a second world title.