Hamilton on pole as McLaren target four in a row


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The Independent Online

The last time Lewis Hamilton dominated a qualifying session by half a second from Pastor Maldonado, McLaren had not fuelled his car sufficiently to get him back to the pits and he was sent to the back of the grid. That was back in Spain in May when, against all expectations, Maldonado won for Williams.

Yesterday, as Hamilton walloped pre-qualifying favourite Sebastian Vettel, Maldonado sprung the surprise of the session by jumping ahead of the reigning champion and staking a claim to his first points since Barcelona.

McLaren came here playing down their chances of a fourth consecutive victory, after Hamilton won in Hungary and Italy and Jenson Button triumphed in Belgium. They had expected Red Bull to be very strong on a track where maximum downforce is needed.

Certainly, Vettel expected more, after being fast in all three free- practice sessions leading up to qualifying. But in the final, vital session, Hamilton's first run yielded him what would become the pole time, without any penalty this time, of 1min 46.362sec.

Vettel's best, curiously, was only third fastest. Hamilton kissed one of the Marina Bay track's plentiful walls on his second run but, even so, it was faster than the 1min 46.905sec Vettel achieved, and slower than Maldonado's hot lap. "I'm a little bit disappointed," said Vettel. "I don't know why we couldn't make the step. Third is a good place to start and it's a long race, but after being fastest in all of the practice sessions it's a shame not to make it to the top in final qualifying."

Hamilton looked quietly chuffed with his second consecutive pole, on a very different circuit to Monza a fortnight ago, but he was not ecstatic.

"It was a great lap, and I'm very happy with it," he said. "It's very tricky here. Trying to find a gap was quite difficult, making sure your tyres and brakes were up to temperature without using them before your first flying lap."

He seemed surprised when told he had brushed the wall. "I did? That means I'm using all the road," he added. "But I didn't mean to hit it. Honestly, I didn't feel it, so hopefully there's no damage."

As Hamilton celebrated and Vettel put a brave face on things, Maldonado said: "At the start of the weekend we were lost on set-up. But we kept improving and adapting the car to my style, and finally we had a very good balance."

This is the toughest race of the year; the longest, at close to the two-hour time limit, on a track with 23 corners. Despite being a night race, it's still run in significant temperature and humidity. The bumps here can flick a car off line and into the wall, and the Pirellis, especially the super-soft tyres on which all the leading runners qualified, will degrade quickly. All four previous races here have been neutralised by a safety car intervention.

Hamilton needs another win to close on drivers' championship leader Fernando Alonso, who was only fifth in a Ferrari that is not as competitive of late. And, who knows, victory might even help him to resolve his dilemma about whether to stay with McLaren or head to Mercedes in 2013.

Hamilton said that he hasn't even thought of whether all the speculation could be having positive impact on his performance. But Button has. "I think it's great," he said. "Every day I read the papers and the websites because we all do, even if we say we don't. I don't know how much truth there is in any of it but, for sure, it's an exciting part of the season for everyone, reading all the rumours and the guesswork."

Today's grid

1 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:46.362, 2 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:46.804, 3 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:46.905, 4 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:46.939, 5 F Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:47.216, 6 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:47.241, 7 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:47.475, 8 R Grosjean (Fra) Lotus 1:47.788, 9 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes No Time, 10 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes No Time, 11 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Force India 1:47.975, 12 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus 1:48.261, 13 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:48.344, 14 S Perez (Mex) Sauber 1:48.505, 15 D Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso 1:48.774, 16 J Vergne (Fra) Toro Rosso 1:48.849, 17 B Senna (Bra) Williams No Time, 18 K Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber 1:49.933, 19 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham 1:50.846, 20 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham 1:51.137, 21 T Glock (Ger) Marussia 1:51.370, 22 C Pic (Fra) Marussia 1:51.762, 23 N Karthikeyan (Ind) HRT 1:52.372, 24 P de la Rosa (Spa) HRT 1:53.355