Vettel’s pole leaves Hamilton trailing
No driver in the sport has failed to clinch the title after winning the opening three rounds, and Vettel is poised to complete the first part of the bargain after edging out his Ferrari team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the second week in succession.
For Hamilton, pictured, already 17 points behind Vettel, he will line up only fourth following a disappointing day in the gloom of Shanghai.
The defending champion dominated practice here on Friday, but he was unable to get his tyres to light up in the cold conditions, and lines up behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas for the second week on the bounce.
Hamilton looked set to run away with the championship after crushing his rivals en route to pole at the season opener in Australia, but his misfortunes and Ferrari’s sudden hot streak have left him on the back foot.
The forecast is for a warmer race today and that should be better suited to Hamilton’s Mercedes car, but the Briton, who will have the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo occupying his mirrors, fears he will be looking over his shoulder rather than hunting down Vettel.
“I am confident I can stay where I am, but moving forwards is going to be tough,” Hamilton, 33, said. “You need a one-second advantage to overtake here. The start will be an opportunity, and the strategy, too, but the car felt like night and day. Right now I am not thinking about the Ferraris, but I am trying to understand why we don’t have the pace. How long it will last? I don’t know. There is nothing I can do. I have been disciplined all week.”
Raikkonen appeared on course to start from pole only for Vettel to finish just eight hundredths of a second clear following a dramatic late lap. The Ferrari driver finished half a second ahead of both Bottas and Hamilton at a track where, until yesterday, you had to go back to 2011 for the last time a non-Mercedes car occupied the front slot on the grid. On that day it was Vettel’s Red Bull, and here the German – now dressed in Ferrari red – could not hide his enthusiasm.
“To have that much of a gap is a bit of a surprise,” Vettel said. “It is a track where you just need to get in and find that sweet spot. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that gap disappears and it will be a very tight race. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if I stay here.”