Valtteri Bottas outpaced his Mercedes teammate and world championship leader Lewis Hamilton by the finest of margins on Saturday to claim a dramatic pole position for the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.
The Finn clocked a fastest lap in one minute and 25.154 seconds to beat the six-time world champion by only 0.063 in the final seconds of an enthralling qualifying session. It was the Mercedes team’s 67th front row lockout.
“It feels good,” said Bottas who was securing the 13th pole of his career 48 hours after signing a new contract to keep him at Mercedes next season.
He added: “We have improved the set-up and the car since last week. Mentally, when you start on pole, you can only aim to win the race – and the starting point is good! It is so nice to drive this amazing car.”
Hamilton explained his unexpected ‘slip’ to second. “I wasn’t that great, but Valtteri did a great job and he deserves pole.”
Nico Hulkenberg, standing in for coronavirus victim Sergio Perez with the Racing Point team, was third, securing his spot with an impressive performance only 10 days after receiving a late call-up while eating a pastry in a Cologne café.
“It’s been a crazy last week,” he said. “Q2 was tricky and I made life hard for myself – and it is definitely going to hurt tomorrow, not having had the experience last week.” He failed to start last Sunday’s British Grand Prix at the circuit after an engine problem.
Max Verstappen took fourth for Red Bull ahead of Daniel Ricciardo of Renault, Lance Stroll in the second Force India, Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and down in eighth Charles Leclerc in the leading Ferrari.
Alex Albon was ninth in the second Red Bull and Lando Norris 10th for McLaren. After two days of political intrigue surrounding the Racing Point copying scandal, it was a relief for many when Q1 began with an early lap from Kevin Magnussen’s Haas to set the mark.
In windy and cooler conditions than those on Friday, the air temperature was 27 degrees and the track was 44 as Hulkenberg, Hamilton and Verstappen took over on top before the ‘black arrows’ boys found their rhythm.
Out went Daniil Kvyat who went off at Stowe in his Alpha Tauri, Magnussen, Williams rookie Nicholas Latifi and the two Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen.
“I think something on the floor broke,” said Kvyat, having bumped along the kerbs at Chapel before re-joining.
Bottas then threw down a gauntlet at the start of Q2 with a lap in 1:25.785, more than four-tenths faster than Hamilton in second, while Ferrari were split with Leclerc fourth and the luckless Sebastian Vettel struggling to survive in 11th.
In what seemed to be an act of desperation, Ferrari sent Vettel out on softs to secure a top-ten shootout spot as Hulkenberg jumped to second and split the Mercedes – but the Italians’ move failed, the four-time champion qualifying a dismal 12th.
This meant the German was eliminated along with Esteban Ocon, of Renault, Carlos Sainz of McLaren, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Williams’ George Russell. “P2, you’re safe,” Hulkenberg was told. “Wooh! Jeepers,” came his reply.
Red Bull surprised many by putting Verstappen on ‘hards’ for his final run, on which he was ninth, a move that means they start Sunday’s race on the most durable rubber and will have tactical flexibility.
Norris, who leads Sainz 4-1 in their intra-team qualifying scrap, was first out in Q3 on softs while behind him both Red Bulls and Ricciardo chose mediums.
Predictably, however, it was Hamilton who set the pace on his first run in 1:25.284, a tenth quicker than Bottas, with Ricciardo taking third ahead of Hulkenberg before, after more tyre talk, the final flying laps with Mercedes duelling for pole.