After holding it aloft in its glass box, Hamilton admitted: “I’m shaken. Speechless. I know that Ayrton was for many of you your favourite driver, and he was the same for me. He was the one who inspired me today, so to match him and to receive this is a great honour. To Ayrton and his family, God bless you, thank you.”
After being beaten by Ferrari in practice this morning, Mercedes had found something extra for the afternoon showdown and Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas took third ahead of compatriot Kimi Raikkonen in the second scarlet car.
Red Bull weren’t far off the pace either, with Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo fifth and sixth respectively, followed by Williams’ Felipe Massa, the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg who completed the top ten.
With the secret to a good lap here being to warm up the front tyres, everyone was very dutiful as the Q1 session began in warm sunshine. Bottas narrowly headed Hamilton, ahead of Vettel and Verstappen, Massa, Perez and Ocon. But Vettel used supersoft ruber as the others went straight to ultrasofts - the clear inference was that Ferrari had the option to keep some powder dry for Q2 and Q3.
Pascal Wehrlein ruined his chances with a late spin which backed his Sauber into the wall in Turn 1. That didn’t help McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, local hero Lance Stroll in the Williams or Haas’s Kevin Magnussen, who were left in the lurch, as was Marcus Ericcson in the other Sauber.
Hamilton headed Q2 initially from Raikkonen, Bottas and Vettel, who had a big slide in the chicane. Hamilton’s 1m 12.496s was the fastest lap thus far this weekend.
Carlos Sainz didn’t help himself by spinning in Turn 1 early on, and neither he nor Toro Rosso team mate Daniel Kvyat, who hit a wall and punctured a tyre, made it through to Q3. The Russia finished just ahead of Fernando Alonso’s down-on-power McLaren, Sainz, Romain Grosjean’s Haas, and Jolyon Palmer’s Renault.
Hamilton’s first run in Q3 smashed Ralf Schumacher’s qualifying lap record from 2004 of 1m 12.275s, with 1m 11.791s, and left his rivals reeling, as Bottas lapped in 1m 12.177s, Raikkonen in 1m 12.341s and Vettel in 1m 12.423s.
Vettel’s response on his second run was equally stellar, though, coming up just four-thousandths short at 1m 11.795s.
Hamilton, however, had an answer – 1m 11.459s – to seal the deal, even though Vettel did a third run and trimmed his time fractionally to 1m 11.789s. It was all brilliant stuff and further endorsement of how close F1 is these days.
Thus the provisional grid will line up: Hamilton, Vettel; Bottas, Raikkonen; Verstappen, Ricciardo; Massa, Perez; Ocon, Hulkenberg; Kvyat, Alonso; Sainz, Grosjean; Palmer, Vandoorne; Stroll, Magnussen; Ericsson, Wehrlein.