SEPANG, Malaysia, (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes pulled out the stops to seize pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix in an inspiring display of speed, even as a power unit problems left title rival Sebastian Vettel stranded in the garage.
The championship leader scorched the 5.5-kilometre long Sepang track in one minute 30.076 seconds, the fastest lap ever set at the track, to beat Kimi Raikkonen and birthday boy Max Verstappen in a hard-fought session.
Vettel, however, failed to set a time and will start dead last in yet another blow to his title hopes, after a power unit issue on his first flier in the opening phase of qualifying forced him to limp back to the pits.
“I went out, everything was fine and then during the flying lap in turn five very abruptly I lost power,” Ferrari’s Vettel, who had an engine change before qualifying after running into problems at the end of yesterday’s final practice session, told reporters.
Vettel trails Hamilton by 28 points in the overall standings heading into today’s race.
The German crashed out of pole position on the opening lap of the last race in Singapore, with Hamilton capitalising from fifth to win.
The gap between the pair is the biggest it has been all year and if Hamilton triumphs on Sunday, with Vettel lower than second, the Briton will not need to win another race to clinch his fourth title.
The Malaysian Grand Prix has never been won from lower than eighth on the grid.
But retired champion Nico Rosberg recovered to third last year after a spin at the start dropped him to the back of the field.
Rain is also an ever-present threat in Malaysia and a typical tropical downpour could also aid Vettel in his recovery.
The four-times champion’s qualifying setback left the way clear for Hamilton to take the 70th pole position of his career which makes the 32-year-old, who surpassed Michael Schumacher’s record haul of pole positions with his 69th at Monza, the first driver to reach the landmark.
It was also his ninth of the season and fifth in Malaysia.
But, even with Vettel out of contention it did not come easy, with Mercedes having struggled all weekend to extract pace from their car. Hamilton’s team mate Bottas was only fifth.
“Those laps, particularly the first Q3 lap, was very well put together, very nice lap, I don’t really know where it came from to be honest,” Hamilton, whose first flying lap in the final part of qualifying remained his fastest, said.
“It’s a surprise to be up here. I’m very grateful.”
Daniel Ricciardo, who led Verstappen in a one-two for Red Bull in Malaysia last year, will start fourth.
He will share the second row of the grid with the Dutchman who engaged in a bit of fun banter with Raikkonen after qualifying.
“I don’t want to be sandwiched,” said Verstappen, pincered by the Ferraris in the opening-lap Singapore crash.
“I don’t want to be hit,” responded Raikkonen.
Frenchman Pierre Gasly, drafted in as a last-minute replacement for under-performing Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso, will make his Formula One debut from 15th on the grid.
The 21-year-old lost out to Renault-bound team mate Carlos Sainz by less than two-tenths of a second.