SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - World champion Lewis Hamilton seized a dominant pole position in qualifying for the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix with a storming lap on Saturday that was almost the fastest ever at the Sepang circuit.
The Briton lapped the 5.5-kilometre track in a stunning one minute 32.850, less than half a second off the quickest lap set by Fernando Alonso in 2005 during the V10-engine era, on a hot but overcast evening.
“Just a huge thank you to the team who continue through the whole year to improve,” Hamilton, chasing his 50th career win, told reporters.
“Great work done coming into this weekend… today the car felt fantastic. I really enjoyed the lap. (But) could’ve been faster,” he added.
The pole was the 57th of Hamilton’s career and eighth of the season. It was also his Mercedes team’s 51st pole from 54 races. The German squad have started all but one race from pole this year.
Hamilton’s championship-leading team mate Nico Rosberg will start alongside him in second after a scrappy lap that was 0.414 seconds off Hamilton’s mark and only slightly faster than Max Verstappen, who was third quickest for Red Bull.
German Rosberg, who has an eight-point advantage over Hamilton in the overall standings, had a strong start to the weekend.
He topped Friday's opening session but could not match his team mate when it really mattered, making mistakes at the altered final corner on his flying lap.
“Lewis’s lap was very quick so it was always going to be difficult,” he said.
“I would’ve come close but unfortunately I had a mistake in the last corner. Something just wasn’t going right in the last corner,” said the 31-year-old.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo will start Sunday’s race alongside Red Bull team mate Verstappen from the second row.
Sebastian Vettel, winner in Malaysia last year, leads an all Ferrari third row in fifth ahead of team mate Kimi Raikkonen.
Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg put their Force India squad on course to extend their lead over Williams in their battle for fourth in the standings. They will start seventh and eighth, while the Grove-based squad’s drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas line up 10th and 11th.
Jenson Button will start his 300th grand prix ninth after making it through to the final part of qualifying in his McLaren.
Hamilton heads into Sunday’s race chasing his 50th career win and hoping to end Rosberg’s streak of three wins from the last three races.
“As we know from this year second place doesn’t mean victory is not possible tomorrow,” said Rosberg who seized the lead from pole-sitter Hamilton at last month’s Italian Grand Prix and went on to win.
“We’ve seen that so many times so still very optimistic for tomorrow.”
Mercedes look set to clinch their third straight constructors’ title on Sunday.
Editing by Ed Osmond