Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton set a track record to capture his sixth pole position at the Chinese Grand Prix on Saturday, breaking the 13-year-old mark held by Michael Schumacher by more than half a second.
Hamilton, a four-time champion in Shanghai, set a time of 1 minute, 31.678 seconds, edging rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by less than two-tenths of a second.
Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, qualified in third, just 0.001 of a second behind Vettel. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fourth.
For the second race in a row, a track record fell in qualifying. Hamilton posted the fastest-ever lap at the Albert Park circuit at the Australian Grand Prix last month to take pole position. Vettel won that race.
The wider and heavier cars designed in the off-season under new F1 rules were intended to lead to faster times, but the difference in qualifying times compared to last year was striking nonetheless.
The fastest lap set by pole sitter Nico Rosberg last year, 1:35.402, was topped by every driver in the first session of qualifying this year, except two.
Schumacher’s old lap record was also beaten by four drivers on Saturday — Hamilton, Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen.
Under the new F1 regulations, this year’s cars have wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce. The heavier cars are more difficult to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and conditioning.
But they’re also significantly faster — as Saturday’s times demonstrated — and are expected to allow more overtaking and create more exciting races.
The gulf between the top two teams and the rest of the field, however, remained significant.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo rebounded from a disappointing retirement in Australia to qualify in fifth place. His time of 1:33.033, though, was nearly a full second slower than Raikkonen.
Williams’ Felipe Massa finished sixth, followed by Renault’s Niko Hulkenberg, Force India’s Sergio Perez, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat and Williams’ Lance Stroll.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, meanwhile, was surprisingly knocked out of qualifying in the first session after reporting a problem with his engine over the radio.
His final flying lap was spoiled when Sauber’s Antonio Giovinazzi lost control coming out of the final curve and crashed spectacularly into the wall, littering the track with debris and bringing a premature end to the session.
Verstappen will now start on the back row for the race — a major setback for the young Dutch driver, who was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Australian GP.
The teams didn’t waste any time in the pre-qualifying session after Friday’s practice runs were nearly completed wiped out due to poor visibility from rain, fog and smog.
The poor visibility on Friday grounded the circuit’s medical helicopter, limiting practice to about 20 minutes in the morning. Many drivers failed to set a lap time, including Hamilton, Vettel and Raikkonen.
The dreary start to the Chinese GP prompted speculation the schedule might be adjusted to allow more practice time or move the race ahead a day to avoid the rain forecast for Sunday. The FIA, however, ruled out any change. –AP