HOCKENHEIM, Germany (AP) — Sebastian Vettel secured pole position for the German Grand Prix on Saturday while Lewis Hamilton’s hopes took another blow.
Already trailing Vettel by eight points in the title race, Hamilton starts Sunday’s race from 14th place after a hydraulic failure.
A huge roar went up from German fans at the Hockenheimring as their local favorite – Vettel grew up near to the track – moved top of the leaderboard with seconds left in qualifying.
Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas had only just beaten Vettel’s leading time, when Vettel produced a stunning lap to move back in front by about 0.2 seconds.
“To do it here, just minutes from where I was born and grew up, it means a lot,” Vettel said. “I’m confident for tomorrow.”
Vettel has only won the German GP once – five years ago when it was held at the Nuerburgring – but never at Hockeneim.
His 55th career pole position felt even sweeter.
“Today’s one of my best. I have a mixed relationship with this track. For some reason it has never come together,” Vettel said. “The car was really a pleasure to drive. Some days you can feel you have something in your hands. That’s the feeling I had.”
Ferrari’s good day was completed with Kimi Raikkonen third fastest, ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
Earlier, German fans had cheered for a different reason when Hamilton’s Mercedes suddenly stalled on track in the first part of qualifying, known as Q1. It happened shortly after Hamilton had gone too wide into a turn, sliding off the track and then going over some rough grass and bumping over a kerb – momentarily airborne – as he came back onto the track.
The British driver desperately tried to push his car back to the pits so he could continue qualifying, but even with the help of track officials he realized it was a futile effort. Moments later, Hamilton was slumped over his car, head down for several moments.
“It was a shame to see him go out, and I mean it,” said Vettel, who is aiming for his fifth win this season and 52nd overall.
Hamilton is one win away from matching F1 great Michael Schumacher’s record of four German GP wins, but he will need an exceptional drive – and probably a little good fortune – to achieve that.
After a huge downpour drenched the track for final practice earlier Saturday, led by Monaco driver Charles Leclerc, the Hockenheimring dried out somewhat by the time qualifying started.
After veering off track, a worried Hamilton complained over his team radio that his gears would not change. Within moments, fans had the rare sight of a four-time F1 champion – who has just signed a whopping new two-year contract – pushing his own car.
After giving up, Hamilton ripped his driving gloves off in frustration as he walked away. He jumped onto the back of a scooter, taking him to the paddock area. With cameras fixed firmly on him, Hamilton walked slowly before standing completely still for several seconds, his helmet still on, seemingly unable to comprehend his misfortune.
It is the latest reliability issue to blight the once-dominant Mercedes team after Hamilton and Bottas were forced to retire from the Austrian GP three weeks ago.
There have also been communication errors and strategy mistakes.
Hamilton now faces another slog through the field after being bumped off the track by Raikkonen early into the British GP two weeks ago. In that race, he clawed back from last to finish second.
Although Hamilton is way down, he still needs to watch his back on Sunday.
Daniel Ricciardo, who has won two races for this season, starts from last place because of an engine penalty.
He incurred it because Red Bull made changes to the hybrid system, the energy store and the electronics unit for a combined total of 20 grid positions. Drivers can use two of each specific engine part during the season before penalties, but this is the third time he is using each individual element.
Hamilton and Ricciardo carving through the midfield, possibly dueling with each other, promises to be an exciting spectacle.