In a mediocre qualifying performance yesterday, the Mercedes driver finished third behind Vettel’s Ferrari and the Mercedes of team-mate Valtteri Bottas.
A dejected Hamilton was contemplating starting the race from eighth place on the grid because of a five-place penalty for an unauthorised gearbox change following the incident-packed Azerbaijan GP two weeks ago in Baku, where Hamilton and Vettel clashed in a moment of high tension.
The British driver lost points there, finishing fifth while Vettel took fourth to move 14 points ahead in a close-fought title race. The penalty comes at a particularly bad time in terms of momentum.
“Of course, you go in with a really positive mind, coming back and fighting [after Baku] and then something like that hits us,” Hamilton said. “It’s difficult for us to swallow.”
Ferrari, locked in a close scrap with Mercedes for the constructors’ championship, has been handed an unexpected boost. Vettel is on the front row and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen moves up from fourth to third because of Hamilton’s grid demotion.
Teams must use the same gearbox for six straight races but Hamilton’s Mercedes team made the change before reaching that requirement. The change was made on Tuesday and came after Baku. Mercedes had already changed it once. Now, rather than feeling confident of back-to-back wins in Spielberg, Hamilton says he is looking to limit the damage at the Red Bull Ring. Three years ago in Austria, he finished a brilliant second from ninth on the grid, but the Ferraris are much quicker now.
Both of Bottas’ pole positions have been since joining Mercedes this season. The latest pole was on the track where the Finnish driver secured his first podium finish three years ago, coming third when driving for Williams.
“It should be a good fight tomorrow,” said Bottas, who is third in the title race but trails Vettel by 42 points. “I’m sure Lewis still has a lot of time to come back and get points for the team.”
Hamilton will need a better day in order to do so.
Nearing the end of yesterday’s third and final practice session in the morning, he went off the track with smoke pouring out the side of his car. It was a brake disc failure and Hamilton’s mechanics worked frantically to get his car ready for qualifying.
Asked if he could win today’s race, a downbeat Hamilton said “it’s not really on my mind at the moment”.
But Vettel did not rule out Hamilton’s chances of challenging.
“We’ll see, it’s a long race,” the German driver said after missing out on a 48th career pole.
Pushing hard to get a quicker final lap, Dutch driver Max Verstappen spun his Red Bull into the gravel. He finished sixth but will start fifth behind team-mate and Azerbaijan winner Daniel Ricciardo.
Lance Stroll, meanwhile, will start a lowly 18th after failing to make it into Q2 – a disappointment following his third-place finish in Baku.
But his Williams team-mate Felipe Massa – on pole here three years ago – hardly fared better and starts from 17th.
Bottas topped the second part of yesterday’s qualifying – Q2 – on quicker ultra-soft tyres than Hamilton’s super-soft option, with Vettel third quickest.
Hamilton failed to find his best level in Q3, calling his drive “so-so”.
Last year, he won from pole in style but it will take something special for Hamilton to win the 57th race of his career. Bottas will aim for just his second victory, while Vettel is chasing a 46th – but on a track where he has twice retired, with a best finish of fourth.
That, at least, may boost Hamilton’s morale.