Faced with a spirited challenge from a resurgent Ferrari for the new Formula One season, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton showed that he’s still the driver to beat.
Hamilton captured his sixth pole position at the Chinese Grand Prix on Saturday, edging Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by less than two-tenths of a second.
For the second race in a row, Hamilton also shattered a track record. His time of 1 minute, 31.678 seconds broke the 13-year-old mark held by Michael Schumacher at the Shanghai International Circuit by more than half a second.
He also posted the fastest-ever lap at the Albert Park circuit in qualifying at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix last month.
Still, Hamilton doesn’t necessarily think he’s the odds-on favorite in Sunday’s race, given the pace his rivals in the scarlet cars have shown.
“The Ferraris have looked so fast,” Hamilton said. “It’s super exciting for me because we’re really fighting these guys, having to raise the bar every time we go out.”
Hamilton also started from pole position at the Australian GP, but Vettel beat him on race day when Hamilton pitted early and got stuck in traffic and couldn’t catch up.
It was Vettel’s first victory in more than a year and established Ferrari as a true competitor to the long-dominant silver cars. Vettel is now keen to make it two-for-two in race wins to start the season.
“I think our car is strong no matter what,” Vettel said. “I still think we can improve.”
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, qualified in third, just 0.001 of a second behind Vettel. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.
The wider and heavier cars designed in the off-season under new F1 rules were intended to lead to faster times, but the difference in qualifying times compared to last year was striking nonetheless.
The fastest lap set by pole sitter Nico Rosberg last year, 1:35.402, was topped by every driver in the first session of qualifying this year, except two.
Schumacher’s old lap record was also beaten by four drivers on Saturday - Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen.
Under the new F1 regulations, this year’s cars have wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce. The heavier cars are more difficult to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and conditioning.
But they’re also significantly faster - as Saturday’s times demonstrated - and are expected to allow more overtaking and create more exciting races.
The gulf between the top two teams and the rest of the field, however, remained significant.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from a disappointing retirement in Australia to qualify in fifth place. His time of 1:33.033, though, was nearly a full second slower than Raikkonen.
“It’s not an overnight thing, for sure,” Ricciardo said of closing the gap with Ferrari and Mercedes. “I think we’ll need some good updates to really get on the pace of them. They’re super quick at the moment.”
Williams’ Felipe Massa finished sixth, followed by Renault’s Niko Hulkenberg, Force India’s Sergio Perez, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat and Williams’ Lance Stroll.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, meanwhile, was surprisingly knocked out of qualifying in the first session after encountering a problem with his power mode.
His final flying lap was spoiled when Sauber’s Antonio Giovinazzi lost control coming out of the final curve and crashed spectacularly into the wall, littering the track with debris and bringing a premature end to the session.
Verstappen will now start on the back row for the race - a major setback for the young Dutch driver, who was coming off a fifth-placed finish in the Australian GP.
The teams didn’t waste any time in the pre-qualifying session after Friday’s practice runs were nearly completely wiped out due to poor visibility from rain, fog and smog.
The poor visibility on Friday grounded the circuit’s medical helicopter, limiting practice to about 20 minutes in the morning. Many drivers failed to set a lap time, including Hamilton, Vettel and Raikkonen.
The dreary start to the Chinese GP prompted speculation the schedule might be adjusted to allow more practice time or move the race ahead a day to avoid the rain forecast for Sunday. The FIA, however, ruled out any change.