After narrowly securing a record-extending 92nd career pole position at the Spanish Grand Prix on Saturday, world champion Lewis Hamilton is ideally placed to move one step closer to Michael Schumacher's record of 91 wins in Formula One.
Championship leader Hamilton has won three of the first five races this year — taking his career tally to 87 — with only his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull's Max Verstappen beating him so far this season.
In qualifying at Montmelo, it was a close call as he nudged Bottas into second place by just .059 seconds.
“It’s definitely been a good Saturday. I’m smiling under this (face mask),” Hamilton said. “It’s obviously very close between us and so every millisecond counts.”
Bottas was ahead of Hamilton on the first two splits but lost a fraction of time when he came out too wide from a turn at the end of his lap.
“All day today I’ve been struggling a bit in (that) sector,” Bottas said after missing out on a 14th career pole. “Of course it is annoying but Lewis did a good job.”
Verstappen qualified in third place and was .708 seconds behind.
The winding 4.7-kilometer ( 2.9-mile) Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, with its combination of slow and fast corners, is one of the hardest for overtaking.
As usual, Verstappen looked the only driver capable of staying with the Mercedes cars.
“It is the maximum we can do at the moment, so pretty happy with that," Verstappen said. “I hope I can apply a bit of pressure (in the race). It is very hard to overtake here, but we will do everything we can to be close to them and make it difficult.”
Racing Point's Sergio Perez, who missed the last two races as he recovered from the coronavirus, was fourth ahead of teammate Lance Stroll.
It was another bad day for Ferrari, with Charles Leclerc ninth and Sebastian Vettel a dismal 11th, despite having a new chassis fitted. Four-time champion Vettel is enduring his worst start to a season since 2008 and has yet to finish in the top five of a race.
Track temperatures on the circuit reached 50 degrees C (122 F) when qualifying started shortly after 3 p.m. local time.
“It would be nice to have an ice cream in here," Stroll joked over team radio.
Renault driver Esteban Ocon took part despite a heavy crash near the end of morning practice, where Hamilton was fastest ahead of Bottas and Verstappen. Mercedes also led practice on Friday with Bottas and Hamilton swapping places and Verstappen twice third.
Ocon went off the track when he had to swerve suddenly to the right to avoid crashing into the back of Kevin Magnussen, who hit the brakes late. He went into the wall and damaged the front of his Renault, bringing a red flag out to stop the session and giving the team just two hours to repair the car. Stewards investigated the incident and took no further action.
“The guys did a great job to get the car ready,” Ocon said.
The French driver made it through the first part of qualifying, known as Q1, where five are eliminated. They included both Haas and both Williams cars.
Verstappen won last Sunday's race at Silverstone to end a streak of three wins for Hamilton and four straight for Mercedes. It also moved the Dutch driver up to second place in the standings behind Hamilton, with Bottas dropping to third.
Hamilton has won the last three Spanish GPs, although those were held in May in lower temperatures not so tough on tires.
“It’s the first time I’ve been here in Barcelona when it’s been this hot. Physically it's tough, it's so fast around here," the veteran British driver said. “The forces to our body are pretty intense and the tires are what we are really struggling with. You see drivers crawling around just to keep the temperature out."
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff remains wary of how the tires will respond to the heat of the track, given the way they started blistering quickly in both races at Silverstone.
“The track itself is very different, so we don’t expect the same blistering issue like in Silverstone,” Wolff said. “But nevertheless more degradation, more overheating, and I believe that Red Bull masters those conditions very well.”
Given that, Wolff said, Verstappen is the favorite even though he's starting from third.
“We hope we will give him a run for his money,” Wolff said.
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