Budapest: Lewis Hamilton again showed he is untouchable in the rain, producing a brilliant last lap to take pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas on Saturday.
Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff could hardly believe it as he watched from the team motorhome, clutching his head in disbelief as Hamilton beat Bottas’s time to secure a record-extending 77th pole position in difficult track conditions.
Just moments earlier, Mercedes’s Formula One rivals Ferrari were 1-2 with Kimi Raikkonen ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
The scenario changed in a matter of seconds, and Vettel will start in fourth behind Raikkonen.
Earlier on Saturday, the third and final practice was held in warm and sunny conditions, but by the time qualifying started there was rain, thunder and even some lightning.
As Ferrari became more cautious, Mercedes stepped it up.
“We couldn’t have expected this,” Hamilton said. “The Ferraris were quicker all weekend, but the heavens opened and it was fair game.”
Bottas finished second behind Hamilton at the rain-soaked German GP last weekend, receiving team orders near the end to hold position and not try to attack Hamilton.
“We are free to fight, so I’m looking forward to it,” said Bottas, looking ahead to Sunday’s race. Although the Finnish driver regularly insists he is on an equal footing with Hamilton, the widely perceived view is that he is effectively No. 2.
The narrow Hungaroring track, nestled in rolling holes on the outskirts of Budapest, is among the most difficult for overtaking circuits in F1. It is considered more favourable to cars with a strong downforce like Red Bull and Ferrari.
It certainly looked that way when the weather was warm and things were going Ferrari’s way, which explains Wolff’s unchecked delight at the end of qualifying.
Vettel was fastest in third and final practice in dry conditions earlier Saturday and also in Friday’s second practice. Hamilton did not finish higher than fourth in all three practice runs.
But when the weather changed, so did the fortunes of four-time F1 champions Hamilton and Vettel.
“In the wet conditions we aren’t as confident as in the dry,” Vettel said, candidly. “In the dry we were in control.”
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo was fastest in first practice, but only 12th in qualifying after his team misjudged which tires to use when it started raining. Teammate Max Verstappen could only manage seventh behind French driver Pierre Gasly’s Toro Rosso car and the Renault of fifth-place Carlos Sainz.
Verstappen and French driver Romain Grosjean were investigated by race stewards for impeding each other.
Vettel is battling fiercely for the title with Hamilton, who won last Sunday from 14th place on the grid. Vettel was cruising in Germany, but crashed toward the end to hand Hamilton the championship lead by 17 points after 11 of 21 races.
Hamilton looked on the back foot in Hungary practice.
The British driver complained on team radio about a lack of grip, having also been concerned with his tires. Early into qualifying, Hamilton even feared his tires were “falling apart” but once again he proved himself to be the best in wet conditions.
The rain led to a flurry of tire changes as drivers adapted.
Force India drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez were among the five drivers who failed to reach Q2, which won’t lift the team’s mood after it went into administration late Friday.
With conditions rapidly worsening, drivers tried to set times early into Q2.
Lance Stroll swerved across the track and bumped the nose of his Williams car into the barriers. Ricciardo has won seven races in his career, but the Australian driver trundled around the track with nothing like his customary speed and aggression.