SOCHI Russia (Reuters) - Championship leader Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position for the first Russian Grand Prix on Saturday with team mate and title rival Nico Rosberg having to settle for second.
The pole was the 29-year-old Briton’s seventh of the season and 38th of his career, but he felt he could have done better on a new circuit that snakes around the Sochi Winter Olympic park.
“It wasn’t a perfect lap I think there was more time in it,” said the 2008 champion, who leads Rosberg by 10 points with four races remaining.
“The track surface is great, very smooth but it’s got a lot of grip,” added Hamilton. “The kerbs are done nicely and the surroundings, being around the Olympic Park is quite an incredible place.”
Rosberg had to recognize that Hamilton, fastest also in practice, had been quicker all weekend but hoped he could get the jump at the start.
“I think the start will be important of course, there’s a great opportunity there,” he said. “I’ve been having some very good starts lately so quite confident for that.”
Both were given a scare by Valtteri Bottas, whose Williams was quicker through the first two sectors before the Finn made a big mistake right at the end and was unable to improve on his third place.
“I didn’t know at that time it was close to the pole,” he said. “I risked it a bit too much in last two corners, went a bit wide and when you go off, it’s really slippery.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button completed the second row while Daniil Kvyat, the only current Russian Formula One driver, will have the home crowd excited after taking fifth place for the Toro Rosso team.
Ferrari, whose record run of 81 successive races in the points ended in Japan, and outgoing champions Red Bull had a difficult session.
Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen qualified eighth and ninth, but will both move up a place due to a gearbox change for McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen, while Red Bull’s quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel managed only 11th.
Vettel will also move up a place to 10th after Magnussen dropped five places from sixth.
“I think we knew it would be difficult for us here,” said the German, who has yet to win this year. “Generally not able to get the best out of the car through the corners.”
Brazilian Felipe Massa fared even worse, with an engine problem dumping the Williams driver out in the first phase and leaving him 18th on the grid with Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson ahead of him in 16th.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg also took a five place drop from 12th due to a gearbox change.
Hamilton will be chasing his fourth win in a row on Sunday, and ninth of the season, while Mercedes look set to wrap up the constructors’ championship for the first time.
“It doesn’t change much for me in the race but it will be a historic moment for us,” said Hamilton. “It’s going to be the first time so it’s going to be historic for the team, a very special moment.”
That might finally bring out the champagne after a tough and dark week, with French driver Jules Bianchi fighting for his life in hospital after crashing into a recovery tractor in last Sunday’s Japanese race at Suzuka.
The drivers are all carrying stickers of support on their helmets.
”It’s something I‘m trying my hardest not to think too much about,“ said Hamilton of Bianchi’s accident. ”We all know it’s tough for everyone here.
”Getting into the car this weekend has probably been the weirdest and one of the most difficult probably in my racing career really.
“We need to keep the pedal down and keep going and all I can hope is that we have a strong, positive race and everyone is safe tomorrow.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by John O'Brien