There was a time, when Lewis Hamilton won pole position, that you would place money on him to scarper away in the direction of the chequered flag with all others trailing in his wake; . So , for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix – which means he is now within a season’s striking distance of Michael Schumacher’s record of 68 – was not quite as reassuring as it once was.
Hamilton bettered his Mercedes team-mate and title rival, , by four-tenths of a second to secure his eighth pole of the season; but on only three of the previous seven occasions has he gone on to win.
Poor starts, particularly in Australia, Bahrain, Canada and Italy, have damaged Hamilton’s season, but he clearly came to the Sepang International Circuit in the mood to make a statement and the margin of his superiority will see him go into the race rich in confidence.
In the final practice session of the weekend Hamilton was six-tenths of a second faster than Rosberg. It was tight in Q1 – though Hamilton won it – but in Q2 and Q3 the Briton was dominant, winning the penultimate run by more than half a second before putting in one of the fastest laps seen here, a 1min 32.850sec, that always looked likely to be beyond the German’s reach.
Rosberg, who with six races remaining, did respond with his best effort of the afternoon, but was still well off Hamilton’s scintillating best and only just managed to edge out Max Verstappen by 0.156 seconds to qualify for the front row.
Rosberg has won the past three races and is well aware that no driver has won eight in a season – as he has – and not won the championship. Although Hamilton was in a class of his own Rosberg reminded him: “Second place doesn’t mean victory is not possible, we have seen that many times. I am still optimistic for tomorrow. I would have come close, but made a mistake at the last corner. I couldn’t get the settings right at that last corner.”
Hamilton won pole for last year’s race here but was . Rosberg said: “As we saw last year qualifying is not decisive and there are going to be a lot of opportunities tomorrow. The start, definitely, and after that with race pace and strategy.”
Rosberg came here on the back of , including a qualifying lap that was described by the Merecedes motorsport director, Toto Wolff, as for the team. That victory was his third in a row following the summer break, but Hamilton has responded as only he is capable of. He said: “This has been a night and day difference to the weekend I had in Singapore. In Singapore, say you have 10 laps in a practice session – and I finished two of them. The mechanics have been great leading up to Malaysia, as they have been all season, and the car felt fantastic. I’ve worked hard to rectify all areas on my part and the car’s part.
“I’ve been here since Saturday. For sure there has been nothing else to do than focus on this weekend, which is definitely a good thing. We had work on Tuesday and Wednesday and, like the other things I do, I don’t feel like it’s a distraction. I don’t feel anything is going to stop us.
“As a team we have great pace and if you look at the last race, we had pretty good starts and we continuously work on that. That’s not something I’m going to let in my mind. I’m thinking of getting a launch off the grid and the car feels really good on the long runs.”
Wolff, whose team can win the constructors’ championship here, said: “Lewis has been in a league of his own over the weekend. So the gap he had was expected – no surprises.”
After this race, there is the Japanese Grand Prix, followed by the US, Mexico, Brazil and finally Abu Dhabi. Hamilton will find the run-in encouraging. He has won three times at Suzuka, where Rosberg has yet to break his duck. The same record applies in Austin. Rosberg does enjoy a 2-0 lead in Brazil and a 1-0 advantage in Mexico, where last year’s race was the first since 1992. Finally, in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton leads 2-1. If it does go to the wire Hamilton’s record of having won three championships will ease the pressure on him considerably.