Lewis Hamilton takes F1 pole in dramatic Russian GP qualifying

Russian pole Lewis Hamilton
Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images
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SOCHI, Russia — Lewis Hamilton took a step closer to equaling the Formula One win record Saturday by clinching pole position at the Russian Grand Prix, after narrowly avoiding early elimination when Sebastian Vettel crashed.

Hamilton charged to a track-record time of 1 minute, 31.304 seconds, beating the Red Bull of Max Verstappen by 0.563 for his fifth straight pole position. Hamilton can achieve his 91st career win in the race on Sunday, matching the record held by Michael Schumacher.

Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was beaten into third by Verstappen’s fast run at the end of the session and was .652 off Hamilton’s time.

The long run from the grid to the first significant turn means Bottas could yet threaten to overtake Hamilton at the start Sunday using the slipstream from his teammate’s car.

“It’s nice being on pole but here is probably the worst place to be on pole,” Hamilton said.

“This year you’re seeing that our cars are more draggy and there’s more tow this year than we’ve seen in other years. So I generally expect one of (Verstappen and Bottas) to come flying by at some point. I think I’m just going to focus on my race and run the fastest race I can.”

Bottas earned his first win at the 2017 race in Russia after starting third and overtaking the two Ferraris ahead of him at the start.

Verstappen and Bottas both start the race on medium tires, which could give them an edge in terms of pit strategy over Hamilton, who is on soft tires, which wear much faster.

“I’m just going to have to nurse those tires for as far as I can. These guys, if they get by, they’re going to be pulling away,” Hamilton said.

Verstappen said he was delighted to start second.

“I wasn’t expecting that and of course it’s great for us. If we can get a good start tomorrow you never know what can happen,” he said.

Vettel lost control of his car over the kerb on the inside of the 90-degree, right-hand turn four and spun into the wall, before the Ferrari bounced back onto the track. Teammate Charles Leclerc was following closely behind and narrowly missed the wrecked car, driving over its discarded front wing.

“Oh my God, that was very, very close,” Leclerc told his team over the radio. Leclerc qualified 11th and Vettel 15th as Ferrari failed to reach the top-10 shootout with either car for the third time in four races.

Vettel’s crash meant the red flag was waved while Hamilton was trying to set his first valid lap time to make the third session – after his first attempt was earlier ruled out for going off the track.

After the track was cleared and the session restarted, Hamilton had to rush his out-lap to make it over the line in time for another flying lap with just a second to spare.

“It was horrible,” Hamilton said. “Heart in the mouth.”

Hamilton was also asked to report to race stewards over another incident in which he went off the track in the first part of qualifying. No further action was taken. It was found Hamilton didn’t gain an advantage because the lap time wasn’t counted.

Hamilton is the runaway championship leader with a 55-point advantage over second-place Bottas and 80 over Verstappen. If he can earn four more pole positions in the last seven races, he would be the first driver to 100 in F1 history.

Earlier in the third and final practice Saturday morning, Hamilton set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 33.279 seconds that was 0.776 better than his Mercedes teammate Bottas, who had been quickest in the first two sessions.

Max Verstappen could clinch second F1 title with victory in Singapore Grand Prix

Max Verstappen F1 Singapore
LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images)
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While last year’s intense Formula One title battle went to the wire and captivated the world of sport, this year’s F1 championship long has seemed a procession for Max Verstappen that could end Sunday in the Singapore Grand Prix.

If the Red Bull driver wins, and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crumbles, Verstappen will claim his second consecutive series title.

Verstappen leads Leclerc by 116 points with six races remaining in the 2022 season and will clinch the title if he scores 22 points more than Leclerc, his most realistic head-to-head challenger.

Verstappen, who turned 25 on Friday, must win to clinch a second world title, along with two other scenarios involving Leclerc. If Verstappen wins, Leclerc can finish no higher than ninth; if Verstappen wins and earns a bonus point for fastest lap, Leclerc can finish no higher than eighth.

“It’s quite a long shot,” Verstappen said. “I need a lot of luck for it to happen here, so I don’t really count on it.”

It is more realistic that Verstappen secures the title Oct. 9 at the Japanese GP.

“I think Suzuka will be my first proper opportunity to win the title,” the Dutchman said. “So I’m looking forward to Singapore right now, but I’m also very excited for next week.”

Still, there’ll be no tension in the air Sunday night at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, as in Abu Dhabi last year when Mercedes star Lewis Hamilton lost the title on the last lap to Verstappen. Hamilton missed out on a record eighth F1 title in a controversial finish following a chaotic late restart.

That fans won’t get to see any such drama this season is much to Hamilton’s regret.

“I feel for the fans . . . Last year, going right down to the wire, that was intense for everybody and so it’s never great when the season finishes early,” Hamilton said. “For you, as the one individual (winner) it’s great, but for the actual sport, (it) is not spectacular. Let’s hope for the future that it’s a bit better.”

Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez (125 points back), Mercedes driver George Russell (132 behind) and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. (152) are mathematical title challengers only.

Red Bull is unlikely to allow Perez an opportunity to beat Verstappen, though, and would deploy him to defend its star driver. Verstappen has won 11 of 16 races, including the past five, taking his career tally to 31.

“It’s been a really special season, and I’m enjoying it a lot,” he said. “But I (will) probably enjoy it more after the season, looking back at it.”

He’s also won from seven different grid positions – a single-season F1 record – including starting from 14th at the Belgian GP last month.

“It’s even good to watch when you’re in the car,” McLaren driver Lando Norris said. “Especially when he starts (far back) and still wins quite easily.”

Hamilton hasn’t been close enough to challenge Verstappen this year after so long in the spotlight.

Two of Hamilton’s came on the last day: in 2008 with an overtake on the last corner of the final race, and in 2014 when he beat then-Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in Abu Dhabi. Two years later, he lost the title in the last race to Rosberg.

Hamilton won the championship with three races left in 2015, and he won the 2020 title at the Turkish GP in a shortened season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With seven titles, that put him even with fellow great Michael Schumacher, who won the 2002 championship with six races remaining. An outstanding campaign saw Schumacher place first or second in 16 of 17 races and third in Malaysia – a race won by his younger brother, Ralf.

Hamilton has a record 103 victories but none this season.

Mercedes has struggled with ground effects, where the floor generates aerodynamic grip – an issue known as porpoising or bouncing – that has been particularly difficult on street circuits like Monaco or Azerbaijan.

Singapore’s tight and sinewy 3.1-mile street course again could be challenging.

“We hope that the car works better here,” Hamilton said. “It really depends how bumpy it is, and the bumps often set the car off. Maybe the car will be fine. Maybe it won’t.”

He does think Mercedes has figured out how to maximize opportunities when they do come.

“We know where those limitations are; we just have to try and work around them,” he said. “I think we were very fortunate, we’re in a much better place I think. So I hope that we’re not far away (from a victory).”

Russell seems to have coped better, however, and leads sixth-place Hamilton by 35 points in the standings. He has seven podium finishes compared to six for Hamilton, who was fifth in the second practice after leading the opening session. The Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc topped the second practice.

Williams driver Alex Albon returns to racing just three weeks after being hospitalized with appendicitis and then suffering subsequent respiratory failure.

Albon jumped back into the Williams FW44 for the first practice session on Friday in hot and humid evening conditions.

“It’s definitely audacious to come back for the toughest race of the season having only just recovered,” Russell said. “But it just goes to show the sort of grit and determination he has.”

Drivers lose around 5 kilos (11 pounds) in weight through dehydration during Sunday’s race.