DOHA (Reuters) -Seven-times Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix with a stunning display of dominance under the floodlights on Saturday.
Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen, 14 points clear of his British rival with three races remaining, qualified a distant second but faces a stewards’ enquiry before Sunday’s race and risks a grid drop.
Hamilton’s team mate Valtteri Bottas, fastest in practice, ended up third but was also summoned for allegedly not respecting warning flags.
“That last lap was beautiful, it was a really sweet lap,” said Hamilton, who won last weekend in Brazil after starting 10th on the grid.
The defending champion was first out of the pits for the final flying effort and set an eye-opening time of one minute 20.827 seconds for his 102nd career pole and fourth of the season.
The 36-year-old had already been on provisional pole with a time of 1:21.262 after going fastest in the first and second phases of qualifying and also being quickest in every sector of the track.
The margin of 0.455 between the two title contenders was the biggest it had been all season in a qualifying session in dry conditions.
Hamilton said he had not been feeling well on Thursday and Friday, when he was also up until midnight working with his engineers.
“I had a bit of a stomach ache from Wednesday but felt fantastic today. I slept well last night so that makes a big difference,” he said.
Verstappen, whose team have openly questioned the legality of Hamilton’s rear wing and voiced concern about the Mercedes’ impressive straight line speed, said his car was just lacking some pace.
“It’s been just a bit more tricky for us again in qualifying,” said the Dutch 24-year-old, whose Mexican team mate Sergio Perez qualified only 11th in a strategic setback for Red Bull.
“Checo (Perez) is not even in Q3 (the final phase) so it definitely shows we are struggling a bit more than normal. But nevertheless it’s still second, so it’s all to play for. I wish we could have fought for more.”
Pierre Gasly was fourth despite breaking his front wing on the kerbs and suffering a puncture, shedding debris and bringing out the yellow flags briefly on his final lap as he came to a halt.
Verstappen’s summons was for allegedly failing to slow for the waved double yellows.
Double world champion Fernando Alonso qualified fifth for Renault-owned Alpine, with McLaren’s Lando Norris sixth and Carlos Sainz seventh for Ferrari — although he too was summoned to see the stewards for a potential flag breach.
“I think there are certain circuits that seem to be better for our package and this is one of those,” said Alonso, whose team are level on points with AlphaTauri but ahead thanks to a race win.
“Being at night, I know it should be no big difference but the track is quite cool at night and that helps a lot with the overheating of the tyres,” added the Spaniard.
“You feel the grip, you feel you can drive the car, you don’t need to save the tyres in any of the corners and that’s a good feeling for a driver.”
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel completed the top 10.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo start 13th and 14th respectively with their teams battling for third overall.
(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Andrew Heavens, Hugh Lawson and Pritha Sarkar)