By Abhishek Takle
SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Formula One championship leader Sebastian Vettel pumped in a stunning late lap to snatch pole position from team mate Kimi Raikkonen as Ferrari dominated Chinese Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
The German lapped the 5.4-km Shanghai circuit in one minute, 31.095 seconds — a track record — to pip his Finnish team mate by a mere 0.087 seconds and take his 52nd career pole.
Title rival Lewis Hamilton qualified fourth, ending the session with a time slower even than third-placed Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas after aborting his final flying lap on a chilly afternoon.
Saturday’s pole was Vettel’s second in three races this season and Ferrari’s first in Shanghai since Brazilian Rubens Barrichello started the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix from the front in 2004.
The Italian glamor team last won in China in 2013.
“Thank you guys, great qualifying, great car,” said Vettel, who also started from pole in Bahrain last weekend, over the team radio. “Really enjoyed that one.”
Raikkonen locked out the front row for Ferrari for the second time in succession.
The Finn had led the timesheets as the drivers embarked on their final flying laps and appeared set to clinch pole position after going fastest in the opening two sectors.
Vettel, who put in an error-strewn first attempt, then pulled out just enough through the final corners to deny the 38-year-old what would have been his first pole since last year’s Monaco Grand Prix.
“It was okay but not good enough,” said Raikkonen after the session. “It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but we’ll go tomorrow and see what we can do.”
Bottas’s time was more than half a second slower than Vettel’s.
Vettel has a 17-point lead over Hamilton after winning the opening two races of the season.
The Briton, second in Australia and third in Bahrain, had gone into the weekend determined to claw back at least some of his deficit to the German at a track that Mercedes have dominated in recent years.
The 33-year-old, like Vettel a four-times champion, has taken an unprecedented five wins in Shanghai but recognized that his chances of a sixth had taken a knock.
“I don’t know if we can challenge, we’re half a second behind today,” he said, hoping that expected warmer conditions on Sunday would help at a circuit where overtaking is easier than most.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified fifth ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who made it out on track just in time, with the former champions working furiously to change his engine after it blew in the final practice session.
Nico Hulkenberg was seventh for Renault ahead of Force India’s Sergio Perez.
Carlos Sainz in the other Renault was ninth with Romain Grosjean rounding out the top 10 for Haas.
There was more misery for former champions Williams, the only team yet to score a point after two races, who failed to make it through the first phase and had Canadian Lance Stroll 18th and Sergey Sirotkin 16th.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly/Alan Baldwin)