Lewis Hamilton dominated a soaking wet qualifying session for the Styrian Grand Prix, topping the time sheet in the treacherous conditions by a massive 1.2s margin.
Heavy rain delayed qualifying by 46 minutes as the sport waited for a break in the weather, and the varying intensity of the downpour and ever-present standing water on the circuit made the one-hour session a particularly difficult challenge for drivers.
Max Verstappen was the Briton’s closest challenger, the Dutchman seizing an early advantage in the frenetic session, but Hamilton dealt him a series of knockout blows late in Q3 until he held a 0.7s advantage.
With his final lap Verstappen was right on the bubble, setting a purple sector and a personal best, but he lost control in the final sector, spinning at the final turn and surrendering his shot at pole.
Hamilton wasn’t done though, the reigning world champion setting three purple sectors to extend his advantage to 1.216s and claim his 89th pole in emphatic fashion.
“I love these days,” he said. “What a tricky day! The weather is obviously incredibly difficult out there for all of us — a lot of the time you can’t even see where you’re going.
“I think today would’ve been better for us if it had been dry, but I’m grateful for the rain — always.”
Verstappen conceded he’d been beaten, lamenting that his RB16 seemed worse off the wetter the conditions became.
“I think overall it was a good qualifying,” he said. “In Q3 it was raining a lot more — it seemed like we were struggling a bit more in the really wet conditions.
“I think in the dry we can have a good shot at (Mercedes). We’ll see how it’s going to go. I think the car in general is better than last week, so I’m looking forward to that.”
Carlos Sainz was the surprise addition to the top three, the McLaren driver capitalizing in the changeable conditions to record his best-ever qualifying result.
“It feels amazing, especially because this qualifying was probably the toughest I have ever done as a Formula 1 driver,” he said. “So much aquaplaning, it was crazy — putting your foot down and just sliding on the straights.”
Valtteri Bottas will line up alongside Sainz in the sister Mercedes all of 1.428s behind his teammate, the Finn blaming a glazed right-front brake making it difficult to build temperature in his tires in Q3.
Esteban Ocon beat Lando Norris to fifth on the grid by only 0.003s, but Norris will be demoted to ninth on the grid thanks to a penalty earned for ignoring yellow flags during FP1. Alex Albon will be promoted to sixth ahead of Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo.
Sebastian Vettel will start from 10th in another disappointing day for Ferrari, the upgrades rushed to the car this weekend making little difference to its qualifying performance. For the second weekend in a row one of the red cars was eliminated in 11th, this time Charles Leclerc, who said he was “struggling to drive the car” through Q2.
The Monegasque was asked with around five minutes remaining to switch to a new set of full-wet tires but he delayed, asking for another tour before switching. Unfortunately the rain intensified in the intervening time, so by the time he bolted on his new rubber, track conditions had deteriorated and time was difficult to find.
George Russell qualified a career high P12, his first visit to Q2 since debuting with Williams last season. The Briton beat Lance Stroll by just 0.009s, the Canadian Racing Point’s highest qualifier in a deeply disappointing day for the team that had expected to compete for the top six this weekend. Daniil Kvyat qualified 14th for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen.
Elimination of the bottom five drivers was more of a lottery, with Q1 the first opportunity drivers had to sample the saturated circuit. Most queued at the end of the pit lane before it opened to ensure they could bank a competitive time if conditions were to deteriorate, but rain remained relatively light, and the 20 circulating cars did well to move a significant amount of standing water.
Track conditions subsequently improved markedly, with times dropping from the 1m24s bracket early in the session into the low 1m18s towards the end, and the leaderboard rotated just as rapidly.
Antonio Giovinazzi was the only driver to crash, spinning off the track out of the penultimate corner and bumping into the barrier backwards. He was able to continue, but his car was dropping debris across the track until he finally parked up at Turn 4, triggering a session-ending red flag. Ironically the premature end to the session cost his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, progression to Q2, eliminating the Finn in 16th.
But Sergio Perez’s elimination was the bigger shock. The Mexican didn’t look as comfortable as teammate Stroll in the treacherous conditions, and he was knocked out in 17th.
With the exception of a single excursion through the gravel, rookie Nicholas Latifi kept himself tidy in his first wet F1 session, qualifying 18th ahead of the stopped Giovinazzi and Romain Grosjean, who completed only one lap before retiring with a water pump issue.