By Alan Baldwin
SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) – Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton made the most of tricky conditions to take pole position for the Austrian Grand Prix on Saturday, with Mercedes team mate and overall leader Nico Rosberg sixth after a grid penalty.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg joined the Briton on the front row, only his second career top-two start, after stewards cleared the German of a possible flag infringement.
In a qualifying session marked by rain and dramatic suspension failures, with the finger of blame pointed at new kerbs, Hamilton made no mistake for his 54th career pole and second in a row in Austria.
“It was a really fun session,” he told reporters. “Here it dries up so quickly, it’s like driving through fog at some stages. I think it just added to the excitement.
“And being a new surface as well, it was very, very slippery, but it was drying up corner by corner. At the end it was just about getting that last lap.”
Britain’s Jenson Button will start a remarkable third for misfiring McLaren, with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen fourth.
Although Button qualified fifth, the 2009 champion moved up thanks to five-place penalties for Rosberg and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel ahead of him.
Rosberg, who has won in Austria for the past two years and leads Hamilton by 24 points ahead of Sunday’s race, crashed in final practice and needed a hurried gearbox change, triggering the penalty.
Although he qualified second, Mercedes said the five-place drop will end up being just four due to the sequence of penalties and when they were incurred.
The German was just relieved to have limited the damage, thanking the team for a huge effort to get his car ready for qualifying.
“Even Lewis’s mechanics came over to my car to try to get it out in time,” said Rosberg. “It was really tight.
“I think Lewis just did a good job there in the very end and that’s it. Second is not first but it’s OK. The five places will be very costly, of course, for tomorrow but I’ll make the best of it anyway.”
The final phase of qualifying took place on a drying track, with the leaderboard constantly changing and some surprising names at the top at times.
The pole teed Hamilton up perfectly for a possible victory at a scenic track he has yet to master. The champion finished runner-up in 2014 and 2015.
Despite a reputation for going against the general trend on safety calls, Hamilton echoed his rivals in expressing concern about the kerbs.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen broke his car’s suspension in Friday’s practice, Rosberg added his name to the list on Saturday and was followed by Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Force India’s Sergio Perez in qualifying.
Kvyat’s incident could have been the most serious, with the Russian fortunate not to smash into the pit lane wall after his car skewed out of control in the first phase of qualifying.
“For me, looking at it, those yellow kerbs are quite dangerous,” said Hamilton.
“We’ve now seen a couple of incidents already. I don’t know how many more of those it’s going to take before a car ends up in the wall and someone gets hurt.
“The idea is good because they don’t want us running wide, and using the outside of the circuit, but perhaps another solution is needed.”
Further down the grid, Germany’s Pascal Wehrlein stood out after qualifying 12th for backmarkers Manor.
His Indonesian team mate, Rio Haryanto, will start at the back after collecting a three-place penalty for failing to slow for yellow flags.
(Editing by Ed Osmond amd Neville Dalton)