Lewis Hamilton snatched pole position for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix after eclipsing Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas with a phenomenal final qualifying lap on Saturday.
The three-time world champion starts ahead of Bottas with Ferrari duo Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, the championship leader, occupying the second row of the grid.
Hamilton claimed the 66th pole of his career, pulling clear of Brazilian great Ayrton Senna and leaving the Briton just two shy of Michael Schumacher’s record of 68.
His quickest lap of 1min 40.593sec came in the final seconds of the session following a red-flagged stoppage which turned the finale into a 3min 30sec showdown.
The 32-year-old bounced back from a frustrating practice outing on Friday to clinch his fifth pole in eight races this season as Mercedes locked out the front row.
Hamilton, who was quickest around the Baku street circuit by half a second, could match Schumacher’s mark at next month’s British Grand Prix if he can also take pole in Austria in a fortnight.
“That was one of the most exciting laps I have had all year,” said an ecstatic Hamilton. “A lot of pressure as we’ve been struggling with getting temperature into the tyres – I was just praying it was enough.
“I am so pumped – that’s how qualifying should be. It is going to be a long hard race, but it’s the best place to start.”
Bottas, who had been fastest in Q3 until Hamilton’s stunning final lap, admitted he was disappointed.
“The lap, in the end, wasn’t quite perfect, I was struggling the front left temperature and Lewis then did his lap! It’s disappointing, but second place is not bad.”
Hamilton is 12 points behind Vettel in the championship after seven races.
Max Verstappen was fifth for Red Bull ahead of the two Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, Canadian teenager Lance Stroll who was eighth ahead of his Williams team-mate Felipe Massa and Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who crashed his Red Bull to engage the red flag and create the final drama.
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Valtteri Bottas made clear Thursday that he is keen to secure a long-term future with Mercedes and is not speaking to any other F1 teams about 2018 and beyond.
The Finn, who joined Mercedes last December as replacement for retired 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg, said he felt no pressure in not having a contract beyond 2017.
“I feel normal, because every single year I’ve been in Formula One I was in the same situation at this time of the year, as I had no idea, at this point, what I was going to do the following year,” said Bottas, who has had a pole position and a race victory this year in his opening seven Grands Prix with the team.
“So, for me, it’s a normal situation.”
Media and paddock speculation about Bottas’s future began earlier this week when Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff said the driver was in a “uncomfortable situation” and added that there was no hurry to offer him a contract extension.
Bottas knows Wolff well, and vice-versa, as the Austrian was his manager before he joined Mercedes.
“I don’t know when I will know,” sad Bottas. “The time line is quite flexible, but, like I said, there’s no rush.”
“The discussions will be open soon, because as a driver, at some point, it’s always nice to know what you’re going to do next year.”
“But it’s still early days and for sure I’m keen to have a long-term relationship with Mercedes. Every day I work hard to make the most out of every single situation I’m in.”
Bottas is third in the drivers’ championship ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix this weekend.
Lewis Hamilton is in the “best place” he has ever been during his five years at Mercedes, his boss Toto Wolff has claimed.
Hamilton will head to Baku, the scene for this week’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, trailing Sebastian Vettel by 12 points in the title race following his victory last time out in Canada.
Hamilton and rival Vettel have three wins each in a championship battle where the momentum continues to shift from one driver to the other.
But Wolff, who has worked with Hamilton since he joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013, has pointed towards the Englishman’s ease in which he has dealt with adversity this year.
Indeed Hamilton was noticeably upbeat after qualifying only 14th at last month’s Monaco Grand Prix – a race in which he would finish seventh and lose 19 points to Vettel.
Hamilton has this year revelled in both the dynamic of his title fight with Ferrari’s Vettel, and the departure of long-term rival Nico Rosberg from Mercedes after he retired within days of beating the Briton to the title.
“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes boss Wolff said. “Not only because he had a great weekend in Montreal, but because he is coping so well with the difficult days.
“This is what the very best are made of. When the fight gets tough, they get over it quickly and maximise their opportunities.
“When you have a bad day, you can either be downbeat about it or pull yourself up and start to act on it. This is what we have done. We moved on, and these are the days that make you progress much more than the good days.
“Every time we’ve had a difficult weekend we have come back stronger. And that speaks volumes for the people in this team.”
Hamilton got his championship challenge firmly back on track after a crushing performance in Montreal which culminated in his sixth victory at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
The 32-year-old Briton will now look to overcome the demons of his last visit to Baku after he crashed out of qualifying and finished only fifth.