SOCHI, Russia (REUTERS/AFP) – Formula One championship leader Lewis Hamilton came back from qualifying drama at the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday (Sept 26) to put his Mercedes on pole position for what could be a record-equalling 91st victory.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen seized second place on the starting grid for the race in Sochi, with Hamilton’s teammate and closest title rival Valtteri Bottas having to settle for third.
Hamilton will equal Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s all-time win record if he takes his seventh win of the season on Sunday.
The pole was the 96th of the six-times champion’s career but he ended the session under a stewards’ enquiry, along with three other drivers, for not returning to the track in the correct manner at turn two.
The champion had already recovered from drama in the second phase of qualifying when Sebastian Vettel crashed his Ferrari and brought out red flags with two minutes 15 seconds remaining on the clock.
Hamilton was 15th and had yet to set a valid lap at that point. He faced a nervous wait with barely enough time left for him to get around and make the final top-10 shootout.
The Briton managed it by the skin of his teeth and then smashed the track record in the final phase with a lap of one minute 31.304 seconds.
Verstappen pushed Bottas off the front row right at the end with a 1:31.867 effort.
“It was one of the hardest qualifying sessions that I can remember having,” said Hamilton.
“I wanted to stay out and do a banker but they said come in and get new tyres and then the red flag came out. It was a risk, we got through but I am starting on softs which is not good.
“Undoubtedly I am likely to get dragged past tomorrow, it will make it hard to win the race.”
Once Q2 eventually resumed Hamilton managed to put in the fourth quickest time to get through to the top 10 shoot-out but missing from it were both Ferraris with Vettel’s teammate Charles Leclerc knocked out in 11th place.
In fifth place on Sunday’s Sochi grid is Daniel Ricciardo for Renault, Carlos Sainz was sixth for McLaren, ahead of Esteban Ocon in the second Renault, Lando Norris in the second McLaren, Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri and Alex Albon in the second Red Bull.
Sunday’s race is due to be watched by the biggest sporting crowd in the Covid-19 era with 30,000 fans allowed to attend.
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