Russian GP: Charles Leclerc storms to fourth consecutive pole position

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Charles Leclerc continued his sizzling form by putting his Ferrari on pole position for the Russian Grand Prix.

Leclerc will start from the front of the pack for the fourth consecutive race after the impressive young driver finished a mighty four tenths clear of Lewis Hamilton.

Sebastian Vettel will line up from third ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The Dutchman, however, will be bumped back five places following a grid penalty for changes to his engine.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team have won all five races staged at the Sochi Autodrome, but they will start tomorrow’s race as underdogs to continue that streak.

Indeed, it is Ferrari, winless from the opening half of the season, who are now the team to beat, on course here to win for a fourth consecutive time.

While Vettel ended his 13-month losing streak in Singapore last weekend, it is Leclerc who continues to impress in his opening season with the Scuderia.

This marked his fourth pole in as many races and his sixth in all this season. No driver has more than the 21-year-old Monegasque, and his margin of victory in Sochi was 0.402 sec to Hamilton and 0.425 sec to Vettel. It is also the 10th round in a row Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel, the quadruple world champion.

“It definitely feels great to be back on pole,” said Leclerc, who became the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to score four poles on the spin.

“That feels very, very special,” he added. “I don’t want to think about that for now but focus on the job. It is a good start and we are looking good for tomorrow.”

Leclerc is 96 points behind Hamilton in the championship with only 156 to play for. Hamilton has not been on pole since the German Grand Prix in July, a streak of five races, but the Mercedes driver was delighted to have split the Ferraris with his final effort.

“I gave it everything I could in the end and I am so glad it came together,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to be on the front row so I am really happy.

“It was a tough qualifying session because these guys have crazy speed on the straights. They have a jet mode.”

Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the closest challenger to the Briton’s hopes of securing a sixth world championship, finished fifth. The Finn will join Hamilton on the second row following Verstappen’s penalty.

Earlier, Alex Albon crashed out of qualifying after the London-born Thai spun at the slow-speed turn 13 before slamming into the barriers.

Albon sustained damage to the rear of his Red Bull and the session was suspended to remove his stricken car. He will start from the back tomorrow.

British teenager Lando Norris qualified eighth for McLaren, two places behind his team-mate Carlos Sainz.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Mercedes apologise to Lewis Hamilton after strategy error proves crucial in Singapore

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Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team have apologised to their star driver, who claimed he was robbed of an “easy” victory in Singapore following a strategy blunder.

The world champion finished only fourth on Sunday as Sebastian Vettel saw off Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc at the Marina Bay Street Circuit to claim a much-needed win. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen completed the podium.

Hamilton had been running in second place, but was left in no-man’s land when Mercedes elected against reacting to an early pit stop by Vettel – one which enabled the German to get the jump on his Ferrari team-mate Leclerc and ultimately bring to an end his torrid 13-month losing streak.

The Briton plodded around the 23-corner course on ageing rubber for seven laps longer than Vettel and six more than Leclerc. By the time Mercedes did pull Hamilton in, it left him in a net fourth, and his hopes of victory up in smoke.

It would have been worse had Valtteri Bottas not followed a Mercedes order to slow down and ensure Hamilton did not become vulnerable to attack from Red Bull’s Alex Albon.

Mercedes’ chief strategist, James Vowles, moved to acknowledge that it was his faux pas which cost Hamilton the shot at a hat-trick of Singapore wins.

“Today there wasn’t a driver mistake, but a mistake in the strategy, and James, with his wide shoulders, said, ‘I have f***** it up’,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said.

“We had a package capable of pole, an opportunity to win, and we made too many mistakes this weekend, with too many opportunities lost. The mood in the team is one of annoyance.”

Hamilton said he had urged his team to risk the undercut (stopping before your rival to take advantage of fresh tyres) in Sunday’s pre-race meeting, but that his request fell on deaf ears.

“It’s painful for us because we could have easily won today,” Hamilton said.

“I was asking them to do the undercut, to take the risk, and go for it, but they didn’t. Two other teams got it right today and leapfrogged us.”

Like, Hamilton, pole-sitter Leclerc also fell foul to strategy. The young Monegasque appeared set to become the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to win three races in a row, only to leave the pits with Vettel ahead of him.

Leclerc was furious on the radio. “To be completely honest with you, I don’t understand the undercut,” he said, believing he should have been given priority over Vettel, who was third before the only change for tyres. “We will discuss after the race.”

Later, he added: “I won’t do anything stupid, but I just think it is unfair.”

Despite Leclerc’s frustration, it became apparent that Ferrari were not favouring Vettel, rather responding to Verstappen pitting – the pair stopped on the same lap for fresh rubber.

“I am disappointed on my side as anyone would be, but it is like this sometimes, and I will come back stronger,” a more sanguine Leclerc said after the race.

Vettel, who arrived in Singapore following his Monza horror show, held his nerve following three safety car periods to take the chequered flag – a resurgent Ferrari winning for a third time in as many races since the summer break.

Hamilton may have been denied a ninth victory of the year, but he was still able to extend his championship lead to 65 points over Bottas, who finished fifth.

Leclerc, third in the standings, is 96 points adrift of Hamilton with just six rounds remaining and 156 points available.

Provided by Press Association Sport

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Sebastian Vettel ends 22-race drought and other talking points from Singapore GP

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Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel ended his 22-race drought by beating team-mate Charles Leclerc to clinch victory at the Singapore Grand Prix.

The four-time world champion, 32, got ahead of Leclerc on lap 20 to take to his first win since the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix in August.

Max Verstappen finished third with Lewis Hamilton crossing the line in fourth.

Here’s a look at the key talking points:

FERRARI DOMINANCE

Ferrari, who have struggled around twisty circuits, had not been the favourites going into the weekend but Leclerc marked them out as contenders after taking pole position on Saturday.

But for all hope of a third straight win for the young Monaco man, it wasn’t meant to be, and he came out on the wrong side of a team strategy call and had to settle for second.

Controlling the race for the first 20 laps, Leclerc was called in second to pit for fresh tyres and Vettel took advantage of his durable hard tyres to jump ahead of his team-mate.

Even though Leclerc pushed hard in his battle against Vettel, the three safety cars late on spoiled any potential change at the top and Leclerc was denied victory.

The 21-year-old will be disappointed with the strategy decision considering he started on pole, but Ferrari aren’t going to mind as the under pressure Vettel received a confidence booster with a first victory since August 2018.

Vettel was in the spotlight after a horror show in Monza, where he spun before collecting Lance Stroll on the way. He finished 13th as Leclerc secured his second straight win.

With the four-time world champion looking confident again, coupled with Leclerc enjoying a sparkling run of form recently, Ferrari’s new upgrades should hopefully threaten Mercedes and make a little bit of a fight of this championship for the six remaining races.

FOURTH FOR HAMILTON

Starting from second on the grid, it was expected that Hamilton would put pressure on Leclerc right from the off, as he bid for his third straight win under the lights of the Marina Bay Street Circuit.

After Leclerc opted to pit on lap 20, Hamilton stayed out for six extra laps as he attempted to build an extra advantage. If he stayed out until lap 28 or was even brought in before Leclerc and Vettel, then he could have been a handed a free victory because of the safety cars.

Fourth place will disappoint Hamilton but the Mercedes struggled for pace all evening and were unable to mount much of a challenge on Max Verstappen and the Ferraris.

Although the 34-year-old would have preferred to leave Singapore with at least a podium finish, Hamilton will be firing for Russia next week, around a track where he has sealed victory on three occasions.

Still, the championship is in no grand danger as Hamilton holds a commanding 65 points lead over his teammate Valtteri Bottas.

RED BULL SOLID

Red Bull came into the weekend as Mercedes’ closest challengers, and Verstappen went on to finish ahead of both Silver Arrow drivers.

The Dutchman is a class act. He headed into the summer break following a series of impressive displays, including wins in Austria and Germany.

He was also within minutes of winning the Hungarian Grand Prix before Hamilton’s impressive late fightback.

In Singapore, Verstappen was expected to be back among the frontrunners, and made advantage of the twisty tracks to finish third – his seventh podium of the season.

His team-mate Alex Albon drove well, maintaining his strong pace and staying out of trouble, finishing in a formidable sixth to record his fifth straight points finish.

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