There was a familiar team on pole in Brazil – and it was another landmark in their Formula 1 journey. Lewis Hamilton, having claimed his fifth world championship last time out in Mexico, didn’t take his foot off the gas at Interlagos, claiming Mercedes’ 100th pole position in F1 and their fifth in a row here, finishing up less than a tenth of a second ahead of nearest rival Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari.
Perhaps the surprise of the session was the driver sitting in P7. For most of the weekend, it has been Haas who have been ‘best of the rest’ but it was Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson - taking part in what's set to be his penultimate F1 race this weekend - who was the quicker of the midfield pack behind the top three teams.
The Swede’s team mate Charles Leclerc came home in eighth, ahead of Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, who has been armed with Honda’s Spec 3 engine this weekend and will be looking to get off the line quickly on Sunday.
Q1 – Verstappen sets the early pace for Red Bull as rain arrives
Who would throw down the gauntlet in the first segment of Brazilian qualifying? Surprisingly it was Red Bull’s Verstappen who topped the opening timesheet, despite being some 0.785s off the pace in Saturday’s third practice session. The Dutchman led the Red Bull charge once again, setting the quickest lap on an evolving track before minor rain showers ultimately hindered his rivals’ chances of going quicker.
Behind the early pacesetter, Ferrari pair Raikkonen and Vettel were like-for-like, both going 0.247s slower, while Hamilton was also narrowly behind. The Briton would have perhaps been surprised to see Haas’ Kevin Magnussen splitting the two Mercedes, with the Dane only 0.010s off the world champion's pace and ahead of Bottas.
Ricciardo came home seventh in front of Sauber’s Leclerc and Haas’ Grosjean, while the sister Sauber of Ericsson made up the top ten. Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Toro Rosso's Gasly, who was concerned by the arrival of rain, did enough to reach Q2, along with Force India pair Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, who were split by Williams’ Sergey Sirotkin.
And while the rain proved a blessing for some – namely Sirotkin – it was a pain for others, with Renault’s Carlos Sainz suffering a shock Q1 exit, the Spaniard missing out by 0.005s. Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley, who had high hopes this weekend with Honda’s Spec 3 engine, also narrowly missed out (by 0.011s to be precise), while McLaren pair Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne joined Williams’ Lance Stroll in suffering the familiar fate of opening-segment elimination.
HIGHLIGHTS: Qualifying from Brazil
Q2 – Bottas leads Mercedes’ fight as Hamilton has near-miss with Sirotkin
Mercedes, having taken pole here for the last four years, gave a reminder of their one-lap pace as Bottas returned to the top of the timesheet, having led the way in Friday’s FP2, finishing ahead of Ferrari’s Vettel in a familiar second. It was a positive outcome for the German, though, as his fastest lap came on the more durable soft rubber (rather than the quicker but more fragile supersoft), meaning he will start on the yellow-marked compound on Sunday and will seemingly go for a longer first stint.
Hamilton settled for third place, but the Briton was involved in two incidents during the session. Whilst on an out-lap he nearly veered into the path of Sirotkin as the two appeared to come within inches of causing a nasty accident, while moments later he seemed to impede Raikkonen, somewhat confused by what direction his Ferrari rival was taking.
There was also drama for Vettel during this session, when he was called into the weigh station without setting a time. He clattered into a cone on his entry, and the stewards were not impressed with his actions. He allegedly failed to turn his engine off, then drove off under his own power and, in doing so, "destroyed the scales" – and he was called in to discuss the incident.
Back to the action and Verstappen finished fourth, with Raikkonen sandwiched between the two Red Bulls, while it was Grosjean who this time led Haas’ ‘best of the rest’ charge by coming home P7. Making up the top ten and reaching Q3 was Sauber pair Leclerc and Ericsson, joining Gasly who finished in P10.
Q3 – Hamilton seals 10th pole of the season ahead of Vettel
A dry track meant the teams were able to give it their all, and that was music to the ears of Hamilton, who wasted no time getting out on a track, and 1m 1.301s after he started his first flying lap, he was sitting pretty at the top of the timesheet.
The recently-crowned 2018 world champion went marginally quicker on his second hot lap, Vettel was unable to close the gap, and that meant a 10th pole position of the season was wrapped up for Hamilton. That is no doubt a huge boost for Mercedes, who know the constructors’ title will also be theirs this season if Ferrari fail to outscore them by 13 points this weekend.
To achieve that they’ll need Bottas to perform and although he was unable to repeat his Q2 exploits by going top, to get his car ahead of the sister Prancing Horse of Raikkonen will no doubt please his boss Toto Wolff.
For Red Bull, they never expected to challenge for pole but they have been encouraged by their long-run pace this weekend so expect them to fight for a podium on Sunday. And there will be contrasting strategies among the top teams on Sunday, with Ferrari starting on the yellow-marked soft rubber while Mercedes and Red Bull are on the supersoft compound.
It was another step in the right direction for Sauber, this time Ericsson leading their charge to a career-best P7 ahead of Leclerc, while Gasly finished up in P10. Ricciardo’s grid penalty, however, means Haas’ Magnussen will start 10th on the grid. All to play for on race day then...
The key quote
“That was a tough qualifying session. Obviously the weather was going up and down and we didn’t really know what to expect but obviously Ferrari are very quick this weekend, and a lot of work gone on in the background with my engineers to make sure we’ve got the car to the best place we could. Just really happy to be here in Brazil. I‘ve got Senna’s design on the back of my helmet. I didn’t know whether or not I had the pole. The last lap wasn’t great, had a bit of understeer in a few places, but I was so grateful when I heard that I had pole.” – Lewis Hamilton
The key stats
Along with securing Mercedes’ 100th pole position in Formula 1, it was also the first time Hamilton has clinched a pole position after he has wrapped up the world title in that same season.
Vettel won the 2010 and 2017 Brazilian Grands Prix having started from second place, the position in which he will begin Sunday’s race.
Verstappen out-qualified Ricciardo for the first time in three races – and a Red Bull starts on the third row, the team having locked out the front row in Mexico.
Ericsson secured the highest starting slot of his career by coming home in P7 – the Sauber man will be sixth on the grid due to Ricciardo’s penalty.
Sauber have two cars in the grid's top 10 in Brazil for the first time since 2004 (when Felipe Massa led Giancarlo Fisichella)
Grosjean secured his 12th Q3 appearance in the last 13 races, while in the sister Haas, Magnussen has still never out-qualified a team mate at Interlagos.
Gasly – who came home 10th in Q3 – will start P9 on Sunday, having been on the back row at the last two races.
Hulkenberg has never been out-qualified by a team mate in eight visits to Interlagos (he took pole in 2010), and Sainz has still never out-qualified any team mate here.
Alonso has now been eliminated from Q1 four times in the last five races, but one bonus for the Spaniard is that he out-qualified team mate Vandoorne for the 25th consecutive race.
Stroll’s P19 means it will be Williams’ worst start in Brazil since 2007.
Onboard pole lap
The Brazilian Grand Prix starts at 1510 local time, 1710 UTC, with the weather forecast suggesting a dry race with temperature highs of 27 degrees Celsius. The breezy conditions may well make it harder for the drivers, but as it stands, the rain is staying away... So can Mercedes clinch their fifth constructors’ title or will Ferrari have a chance to fight for that honour in Abu Dhabi? We’ll find out on Sunday…