World champion Lewis Hamilton’s record-extending 102nd Formula One pole position on Saturday was a perfect case of damage limitation considering his 10-place grid penalty.
Although the seven-time F1 champion will start from 11th, he’s still in a good position to score some big points in Sunday’s race, where title rival Max Verstappen starts from second behind Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton finished .13 seconds ahead of Bottas and .33 ahead of Verstappen – the same as Verstappen’s car number – but all the leading drivers move up one slot. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc goes from third with AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly in fourth.
It leaves Verstappen well poised to close the two-point gap and reclaim the championship lead from Hamilton in a thrilling battle that could go to the wire with six races left after this one.
Verstappen has made blistering starts this season and will be confident of an 18th career win, providing he gets by Bottas early on.
”I hope for a clean getaway but starting on the inside will be tricky. There is very low grip in both dry and wet conditions compared to the outside,” he said. ”We’ll try everything we can to keep the Mercedes behind but it’s not going to be easy, they’ve had great pace all weekend.”
Hamilton’s grid penalty was for going over his allocation of three combustion engines for the season. He will go for a record-extending 101st F1 win, although that will prove difficult with so much quality traffic in front of him. Hamilton also has to get past two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso – who showed in Hungary he’s still an absolute master at defensive driving – McLaren’s speedy Lando Norris and Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez.
”I imagine tomorrow is going to be difficult to move up,” Hamilton said. ”We’ve got the long straight down the back, so we’ll see what we can do.”
Verstappen felt the car improved after some complications in Friday’s two practice sessions.
”The laps were quite good. We lost a bit down the straight, we’ll have to look into that. Overall, quite a decent recovery from yesterday,” Verstappen said. ”Let’s wait and see what the weather will do overnight. Let’s see how competitive we will be in the race. Obviously tire wear is quite high around this track.”
Bottas is still seeking his first win of the season and could get it this time with Hamilton perhaps too far back to challenge.
”I’m on pole so should be good,” the Finnish driver said. ”I’ll focus on my own race tomorrow and try to keep up the good pace.”
Leclerc, meanwhile, is aiming for a 14th career podium.
”If the conditions are dry, I am confident that we have good potential,” he said.
As the afternoon rain started to fall on an overcast Saturday afternoon, drivers tried to do quick early laps in Q1 before the track got too wet.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. spun off track and got back on, as did AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, while Hamilton went wide on Turn 5.
Hamilton topped Q1 ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, while McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo – winner of eight F1 races – was the biggest name among the five knocked out of it.
”I struggled to get more out of the soft tires,” Ricciardo said. ”No excuses.”
Although Hamilton again topped Q2 ahead of Bottas and Verstappen, he also complained of not getting enough heat into his tires.
Leclerc had an issue with downforce and lost the rear of his Ferrari as he slid off track midway through Q2. That damaged his tires a little and put him at risk of not qualifying for Q3. But the driver from Monaco got through on his last lap, while four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel missed out for Aston Martin.
The 5.3-kilometer (3.3-mile) Istanbul Park circuit was fairly dry by Q3 and Hamilton took control without too much trouble.
He leads Verstappen by two points in a thrilling title race but could well be overtaken by the Dutchman. Hamilton trails Verstappen 7-5 for wins and 7-4 for poles this season.
Earlier, Gasly posted the fastest time in a rainy third and final practice.
Sainz Jr. starts from last after a complete engine change earlier this week.
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