By Abhishek Takle
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel put himself on pole position to retake the Formula One lead from Lewis Hamilton with a sensational late lap in Singapore Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
Hamilton, who leads the German by three points with seven rounds remaining, qualified his Mercedes only fifth for Sunday’s night race with team mate Valtteri Bottas set to start alongside in sixth.
Dutch teenager Max Verstappen will start second for Red Bull, after going fastest in the first two phases of qualifying, with Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo third and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen fourth.
Vettel, who lost the lead to Hamilton at the previous race in Italy, is a four times winner in Singapore and the pole was also his fourth in the city state as well as the 49th of his Formula One career.
It was also his third of the season but he had to put everything on the line when it really mattered to beat the Red Bulls in a close-run session, lighting up the timing screens with a lap of one minute 39.491 seconds.
“I’m still full of adrenaline so maybe whatever I say doesn’t make any sense,” a breathless Vettel, who let out a loud whoop of joy over the team-radio, said after he stepped out of the car.
“The car was tricky but it came alive and it was getting better and better as the night progressed, so I’m really happy that we got it done.”
Red Bull had topped the timesheets in every session leading up to qualifying and had looked on course for their first front row lockout since the U.S. Grand Prix in 2013, with Verstappen also fastest in the opening two phases of qualifying.
Had he been on pole, the 19-year-old would have been the youngest driver in the history of the sport to start from the top slot.
“I think the final lap was not great but we were quite close so I’m pretty happy with that,” said the Dutch driver, who turns 20 in two weeks’ time.
“During the race it will be difficult to pass him so we have to see on the first lap.”
Ricciardo, a winner in Azerbaijan in June, also remained confident.
“I’m still confident we’ll get victory. I think we’ve got a good package. Seb turned it on in qualifying but I’m looking forward to tomorrow,” said the Australian.
There were few smiles at Mercedes, with the champions arriving in Singapore fearing it would be a tough weekend but secretly hoping for better.
“You always hope for better but probably its realistically where we are in Singapore,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “There seems to be a certain pattern that some cars go better on the slow, twisty stuff. And that is Ferrari and Red Bull.”
Hamilton, who took a record 69th career pole at Monza by a huge margin, never looked in contention.
“We knew that today would be tough,” he said. “I definitely didn’t anticipate Ferrari would be as strong as they were. I thought Red Bull would be as quick as they were but we still remain hopeful.
“I got everything I could out of the car, everything and more,” he added.
Nico Hulkenberg was seventh for Renault ahead of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, who put both McLarens in the top 10 a day after the former champions agreed to swap Honda power for Renault in 2018.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz, set to move to the works Renault team next year, rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris)