Charles Leclerc confirmed Ferrari’s Formula One resurgence when he reeled off his fourth consecutive pole position with another stunning lap on Saturday as he topped the times in qualifying for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
The in-form Monegasque clocked a best lap of one minute and 31.628 seconds to improve his time in the final seconds and set up an end to Mercedes’ five-year domination of the event since it began in 2014.
After three successive Ferrari wins, two by Leclerc, he appears set to extend the scarlet scuderia’s run of current success to four races.
His performance made him the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2001, when Leclerc was only three years old, to secure four straight poles.
Series leader and defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton pulled out a dazzling final sector and final lap to take second ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the other Ferrari by a narrow margin.
Vettel, who won in Singapore last Sunday, was third ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who is set to take a grid penalty, Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes and Carlos Sainz of McLaren.
“The car felt amazing. It definitely feels amazing to be back on pole, but I don’t know if it’s the best track to start on pole,” said Leclerc.
“The straight at the start is very long. It definitely feels very special (to take four consecutive poles), but I don’t want to think about those stats!”
Hamilton said he remained amazed at Ferrari’s power and speed on the straights. “I tell you, it was a tough session. These guys have another level on the straights – jet mode.
“I gave it everything I had and the team was able to tinker and push forward… I didn’t expect to get on the front row.”
Vettel said: “Obviously I’m not entirely happy and extracted the maximum from the car. Turn One is a long way – and we’re on different tyre strategies compared to the Mercs. Personally, I need a good start and then you worry about the race.”
The session began in dry and warm conditions following overnight rain with Hamilton, on softs, leading the way before a lurid spin from Williams’ Robert Kubica was followed by Red Bull new boy Alex Albon crashing heavily at Turn 13.
He lost control and went into the barriers, damaging the rear of his car. He was unhurt. This led to a brief red flag stoppage before Vettel went top ahead of Hamilton and Verstappen.
Out went Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen ahead of his 307th start, which is set to put him third in the all-time list ahead of Michael Schumacher and Jenson Button, leaving only Fernando Alonso on 311 and Rubens Barrichello on 322 ahead of him.
The Finn was joined by Williams duo George Russell and Kubica, Albon and the luckless local hero Daniil Kvyat of Toro Rosso in making early exits. Kvyat took no part after requiring an engine change following final practice.
Leclerc topped the first runs in Q2 and stayed there ahead of Vettel with Verstappen third and the Mercedes men fourth and fifth, running on mediums.
After a fierce scrap, both Renaults squeezed through to the top ten shootout and out went Pierre Gasly in the second Toro Rosso, Sergio Perez of Racing Point and Antonio Giovinazzi of Sauber ahead of Haas’s Kevin Magnussen and Lance Stroll in the second Racing Point.
This left the usual suspects to fight it out for pole position with Ferrari revelling in their straight-line speed advantage to lead the way,.
Mercedes toiled to keep pace with them, but Hamilton was half a second slower than the Monegasque who appeared to be in supreme form as he sped around the former 2014 Olympic Park track before trimming that to grab a spot on the front row and split the Ferraris.