Sebastian Vettel set a blistering new lap record for Ferrari as he stormed to pole position for Sunday’s Chinese Formula One Grand Prix ahead of champions Mercedes.
Vettel clocked 1min 31.095sec at the Shanghai International Circuit in final qualifying on Saturday ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
Valtteri Bottas was third fastest and his Mercedes teammate and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton fourth.
“The car was really amazing, it just kept getting better. So I’m really happy,” Vettel said.
The German’s flying lap ensured back-to-back front row lockouts for Ferrari for the first time in 12 years despite Vettel admitting to being a bit wobbly on some turns in cold qualifying conditions.
“I was a bit beaten up, but knew that if I could get a tidy lap and have a little bit of margin, I can push it. It was really good,” Vettel said.
Hamilton, who has more wins in Shanghai than anyone else with five, was more than a half-second off Vettel’s pace, and admitted he couldn’t explain why.
“We started the weekend positively in practice, but the car went away from us today. The pace just wasn’t there, he said.
“It’s not going to be easy to beat Kimi and Sebastian tomorrow, they’re the quickest on the straights too, so overtaking will be tough.”
“We start fourth and I’m going to have to fight from there.”
A Ferrari win in Shanghai would prompt more questions for Mercedes after Vettel took the first two races of the season in Australia and Bahrain to open a 17-point lead in the standings over Hamilton.
Mercedes waiting to pounce
But team boss Toto Wolff dismissed the suggestion that Mercedes’ dominance – they have won the last four Formula One world championships – was ending.
“That would not be the right mindset,” he said.
“We’ve shown in the past that we have recovered from difficult periods, and I have actually started to appreciate the difficult days because they make us progress and understand our car better.”
“The funny thing about being outperformed on Saturday is that you are the lion that is just waiting to jump on its prey,” he added.
The Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo took the fifth and sixth grid spots, with the team just barely getting Ricciardo’s car ready after an engine blow-out in final practice.
Mechanics were seen frantically snapping major pieces of the car’s body back into place as the clock ticked down, and the Australian driver tore out onto the track with only about a minute to spare.
“Obviously that was really close. We definitely were not doing that for the cameras,” said a clearly relieved Ricciardo.
“I think Ferrari are still going to be very strong tomorrow but with Mercedes today, I think we can race them tomorrow. That will be fun.”
Vettel said even he was surprised at the gap in qualifying times between Ferrari and Mercedes, who have won five of the last six Shanghai races.
“To have that much of a gap I think is a surprise. But it’s a track where you need to find that sweet spot and if you are a little bit out you drop a little bit of time,” the German said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow that gap disappears and its a very tight race.”
“I think it will be a tight race between the top three teams and a long tough race, but it’s obviously good to start from the front.”
Rounding out the top ten on the grid were Nico Hulkenberg for Renault, Sergio Perez of Force India, Carlos Sainz of Renault and Romain Grosjean for Haas.