By Alan Baldwin
MONACO (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton celebrated an emotional pole position for Mercedes at the Monaco Grand Prix on Saturday with team mate Valtteri Bottas joining the Formula One leader on the front row, while Ferrari got their sums wrong.
The record-extending 85th pole of the Briton’s stellar career, and second of the season, came as the sport mourns the death of triple world champion and Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda.
The champions look set to deliver a perfect tribute to the Austrian on Sunday in the shape of a sixth successive one-two finish.
“This is definitely one of the best poles I can remember,” said Hamilton, who denied Bottas a fourth successive top slot with a final flying lap 0.086 seconds quicker than the Finn’s best effort around the metal-fenced streets.
“This one’s for Niki,” added the five-times world champion, who leads Bottas by seven points in the standings.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified third and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel will line up fourth after narrowly avoiding going out in the opening phase on a shambolic afternoon for the Italian team.
A glaring error denied Charles Leclerc the chance to shine at home, with the 21-year-old Ferrari driver failing to make it through the first phase and qualifying only 16th as Prince Albert watched on.
Leclerc had been fastest in final practice.
Vettel had hit the wall in final practice and was in trouble in the first phase when, with only seconds remaining, he hauled himself out of the bottom group to safety.
That had the consequence of plunging Leclerc, who had saved tires and not gone out for another lap despite being on the cusp, into trouble.
Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto told reporters the team needed to take risks in the battle against Mercedes, had miscalculated the margin and assumed Leclerc was safe.
“I asked whether they were sure,” Leclerc, who had stood in the garage shaking his head in disbelief, told Sky Sports television.
“They told me we think we are (okay). And I said shouldn’t we get out again? There was no real answer.”
The Monegasque said his best hope now was for rain to turn the race, so often a procession in Monaco’s tight streets, into a lottery on Sunday.
Weather forecasts indicated dry conditions until at least the evening.
“I’ll have to take a lot of risks I think, even risking to crash, but at the end that’s the only thing we need to do now, to try and be extreme in our overtaking because this is a track where it’s basically impossible to overtake,” said Leclerc.
Verstappen’s team mate Pierre Gasly qualified fifth, but was later given a three-place grid drop for impeding Haas’s Romain Grosjean.
That decision promoted Kevin Magnussen, Grosjean’s team mate, and Daniel Ricciardo, last year’s winner for Red Bull, who will start sixth for Renault.
Toro Rosso had their two cars in the top 10, with Russian Daniil Kvyat moving up to seventh and Thailand’s Alexander Albon in 10th place. McLaren’s Carlos Sainz lines up ninth, with Gasly eighth.
Both the Mercedes cars had their ‘halo’ devices painted red in a tribute to Lauda, a two-times Monaco winner with Ferrari who wore a red cap to hide the burns suffered in a fiery 1976 crash at the Nuerburgring.
“We have had lots of success over the years but I can’t remember one that means as much as this one,” said Hamilton of the pole.
“It has been such a difficult week for the team. We have had a cloud over us all weekend and we have been trying to lift each other up.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Clare Fallon)