Defending world champion and series leader Lewis Hamilton secured the 45th pole position of his career on Saturday when he outpaced Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in a dramatic rain-affected qualifying for Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix.
The 30-year-old Briton survived a last-gasp spin at the first corner of his final fast run to stay on top thanks to 29-year-old Rosberg following suit by running off track at the final corner in his final push for pole.
For Germany’s Rosberg, faced with a long trudge back to the pits, it was an ignominious end to a frustrating top-ten shootout after he had appeared to be fastest for most of the session.
“It was quite a difficult qualifying with the track conditions,” admitted Hamilton, who is now third, alongside four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in the all-time list of pole-winners. Only Brazilian Ayrton Senna on 65 and German Michael Schumacher on 68 have taken more poles.
“I was grateful I got my third lap in on the first run in Q3. I was pushing that bit extra on the next run and just locked the rears.
“I wasn’t too concerned about losing pole at that time because I was trying to get the car going, but obviously afterwards I was thinking: ‘I probably lost it there.’
“Ferrari have really showed some great pace here so it is going to be a tough race. Every little bit of time will count tomorrow.”
Hamilton took his pole with a best lap of 1min 8.455sec, outpacing Rosberg by 0.2 seconds. Vettel was third fastest for Ferrari.
For Mercedes, it was a 19th successive pole position in a run of dominance that left their rivals, Vettel apart, in some disarray. Hamilton took pole for the seventh time in eight races and is the first Briton on pole in Austria since James Hunt in his title-winning season of 1976.
Brazilian Felipe Massa was fourth for Williams ahead of German Nico Hulkenberg, fifth for Force India, and Finn Valtteri Bottas in the second Williams.
Dutch teenager Max Verstappen continued his impressive rookie season by qualifying seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Russian Daniil Kvyat of senior sister team Red Bull, Brazilian Felipe Nasr of Sauber and Frenchman Romain Grosjean of Lotus.
On a cool, damp and drizzly day, with low temperatures — 12 degrees Celsius for the air and only 22 for the track — and wet surface areas, conditions were treacherous.
The struggling McLaren Honda team was already swamped by problems with Briton Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, requiring a complete new power unit with gearbox and two-time champion Spaniard Fernando Alonso adding a new gearbox to his earlier new engine.
This meant that both men are set for 25-place grid penalties for Sunday’s race which, in turn, means they will start from the back of the grid and have to take timed penalties.
Both Red Bulls will be just in front of them due to penalties imposed for exceeding the limit of engine changes – Daniel Ricciardo had the 14th fastest time.
Button ended up finishing 17th in Q1, one place behind Mexican Sergio Perez of Sauber and one ahead of another unexpected flop Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari. These three finished ahead of the regular back of the field Manor Marussia drivers Spaniard Roberto Merhi and Briton Will Stevens.
“I really don’t know what happened,” said Raikkonen, who has denied reports that he has been offered a substantial pay cut to stay with the Italian team.
“Obviously it’s a bad day and it won’t help us for tomorrow.”
Button was more philosophical. “The wet conditions were fun and a real test. I was P1 and P2 for a while, but when it dried out we just fell away.”
At the front, Rosberg was quickest in Q1 ahead of Carlos Sainz with Vettel third, and Hamilton squeezing through in 13th as the conditions and tyre requirements changed.
Rosberg was quickest again in Q2 ahead of Hamilton, with Vettel third, as Daniel Ricciardo missed the top-ten shootout for the first time in his Red Bull career, qualifying down in 14th ahead of Alonso.