Charles Leclerc pulled off another stunning pole lap in qualifying for the 2019 Russian Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom. It's his fourth pole in a row: the last time a Ferrari driver achieved that feat was Michael Schumacher in 2001.
Leclerc's time of 1:31.628s was four tenths quicker than Mercedes Lewis Hamilton, who had to dig deep to find the time he needed to deny Sebastian Vettel a front row starting spot for Sunday's race.
Max Verstappen was fourth fastest in the session but will start five spots further back for the race due to grid penalties. That promotes Valtteri Bottas to fourth ahead of Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg.
Alexander Albon failed to make it out of Q1 after triggering a red flag by spinning into the tyre wall at turn 13.
Despite an overnight deluge, today's anticipated rain had largely stayed away from Sochi Autodrom on Saturday. By lunchtime the heavy cloud cover had broken up revealing bright blue skies, and the big surprise was how warm it was proving to be. Would that affect tyre longevity and the team's strategies?
Q1: Vettel leaves it late to go top after red flag for Albon
First to hit the track were Williams' George Russell and Robert Kubica, with the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc next to stir followed by the two Alfa Romeos of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi.
Russell's 1:36.201s briefly topped the timesheets with Kubica over a second behind, but inevitably it was Leclerc who blasted to the top with a first effort of 1:33.613s. Vettel however ran wide on his initial run and backed off to save his tyres for a second push.
By now, all teams were out on track and straight down to work. Kevin Magnussen put Haas into second place ahead of the McLarens of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, before Lewis Hamilton was able to go fastest of anyone to go top followed by Red Bull's Max Verstappen, pushing Leclerc down to third. Valtteri Bottas debuted in fourth place ahead of Magnussen, while Nico Hulkenberg was a second off Hamilton's top time as the Renault slipped smoothly into sixth.
Vettel's second flying lap was interrupted by a local yellow for a spin by Kubica. He was still struggling to get a clean lap in when the session was red-flagged as a result of Alexander Albon losing the back of the Red Bull into turn 13, a near-replay of his team mate's FP3 incident but with a more emphatic hit with the tyre barrier at the end to finish things off.
There were just over six and a half minutes still to go when the session resumed. Still without a flying lap time and therefore mired deep in the elimination zone, it was no surprise to see Vettel go straight out on soft tyres - nor was it a shock that he duly took the top spot with a time of 1:33.02s, two tenths quicker than Hamilton's previous benchmark.
That briefly pushed Pierre Gasly into the drop zone along with Russell, Kubica and the sidelined Albon. However the Frenchman's final effort propelled him to safety and left the two Alfa drivers scrapping between themselves to avoid elimination; a messy exit from the final corner cost Raikkonen dear and it was Giovinazzi who ended up scrapping through.
To the disappointment of grandstands packed full of local fans, Daniil Kvyat took no part in the session after his Toro Rosso earlier suffered a second power unit issue in two days, making it a torrid home race weekend for the young Russian. He'll have to start tomorrow's race from the back of the grid.
Q2: Ferrari firmly on top as Mercedes make it through on mediums
Mercedes showed their hand early at the start of Q2 with Hamilton and Bottas both heading out sporting the medium compound that they hoped to start to start the race on. Verstappen played safe on softs, as did the rest of the cars still in the running.
Hamilton managed 1:33.134s on the yellow-walled tyres which was quickly pipped by Verstappen going 0.042s quicker. All eyes were then on the Ferrari cars, and Leclerc comprehensively moved the goalposts by setting a new benchmark of 1:32.434s which was over six tenths quicker than Vettel who had begin the round on a used set of softs after having to make more runs than expected in Q1.
Just 0.035s covered sixth through tenth in a heavily compacted midfield after the first runs. In eleventh, Magnussen was the first of the drivers on the wrong side of the cut-line along with team mate Romain Grosjean, Racing Point's Lance Stroll, Renault's Daniel Ricciardo and finally the Alfa of Antonio Giovinazzi. However with the track evolving all the time, the order was by no means set.
Stroll was first to set a time but he was still short of getting through to the final round. More successful was Grosjean who leapt to safety in sixth place albeit still nearly four tenths slower than Bottas ahead. That eased the pressure on the two Silver Arrows cars who had nonetheless gone out in case a contingency lap on soft tyres ended up being required.
Vettel was on new softs for this lap and closed the gap to Leclerc to just a tenth. There were improved laps from Norris, Sainz, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg which shuffled the rest of the top ten, and also pushed Gasly out after the Toro Rosso made a mistake and ran wide on his own final push lap. It meant that he joined Perez, Giovinazzi, Magnussen and Stroll on the sidelines for the remainder of qualifying.
Q3: Leclerc unstoppable as Hamilton pips Vettel for second on the grid
There was no time to waste when the track went green for the final top ten pole shoot-out round. First on the timing screen was Norris with a 1:34.108s, but that was half a second slower than the time Hulkenberg immediately contributed.
Mercedes then briefly took the top two spots, but there was a sense of inevitability as Ferrari swept in to take a provisional one-two, Leclerc's scintillating 1:31.801s proving to be a third of a second quicker than Vettel and Hamilton left over half a second off the top time in third followed by Bottas and Verstappen. The top five were the only cars even within a second of Leclerc's time as the cars returned to pit lane.
There was still time for one final push before the chequered flag. Vettel was first on track but proved unable to find the extra time needed to depose Leclerc, who in any case shaved off a further two tenths from his earlier time to cement pole position. The surprise ended up being Hamilton digging deep to go second ahead of Vettel to deny Ferrari its hopes of a front row lock-out.
Verstappen also made a late improvement to finish fourth fastest ahead of Bottas, although the Red Bull will take a five place grid penalty tomorrow having taken new engine parts coming into Sochi. That means Bottas will still start from fourth ahead of Sainz, Hulkenberg and Norris. The top ten was rounded out by Grosjean and Ricciardo.