Lewis Hamilton will start his bid to win a record-equalling world championship from sixth after Lance Stroll provided a major upset by putting his Racing Point on pole for Sunday’s Turkish Grand Prix.
Hamilton and his all-conquering Mercedes team have had it virtually all their own way this year. But they were thrown an extraordinary curveball at the rain-lashed Istanbul Park circuit on Saturday with Hamilton trailing Stroll by almost five seconds.
Valtteri Bottas, the only man who can prevent Hamilton drawing level with Michael Schumacher’s record haul of championships, will start further back in ninth. If Hamilton finishes ahead of his Mercedes team-mate on Sunday, he will claim an historic seventh title.
This has been a predictable Formula One campaign – with Hamilton a victor at nine of the 13 rounds – but the outcome of Sunday’s race is far from certain. The recently-resurfaced 3.3 miles of asphalt on the sport’s first visit to Istanbul in nine years has not suited Hamilton’s Mercedes machine. And with rain on the radar, Hamilton’s date with destiny will be far from straightforward.
“This whole weekend has been a nightmare on the track,” said Hamilton, who heads into Sunday’s race 85 points clear of Bottas with only 104 points available.
“The track feels terrible, it is like driving on ice, but for whatever reason some people can get the tyres switched on better than us.
“I am not really sure what to say. We tried our hardest and I did the best I could. That was the fastest I could go.”
Hamilton, so often the master of the wet conditions, was never in contention to take pole. That honour looked set to fall to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who completed a practice treble and finished top of the time charts in Q1 and Q2. But Racing Point pulled off a masterstroke to put both Stroll and his team-mate Sergio Perez on the faster intermediate tyre at the beginning of Q3.
Verstappen would switch from the extreme wet rubber but he fell two tenths short of usurping Stroll. Perez finished third in the other Racing Point.
“I can’t really put it into words right now,” said Stroll, 22, who missed the Eifel Grand Prix in Germany last month through illness and subsequently tested positive for coronavirus.
“I’m shocked, I didn’t expect us to be up here. I was under a lot of pressure, but I had the confidence in the car and I just nailed pretty much every corner. It’s such a great way to bounce back after a few rough weeks.
“It’s a special moment for me. It’s one of the biggest highlights of my career. We dream about these moments, growing up.”
Qualifying took the best part of two hours to complete after Q1, the opening 18-minute running, was suspended on two occasions. With just 10 minutes on the clock, race director Michael Masi deemed the conditions were too dangerous as rain continued to batter the circuit, 30 miles east of Istanbul.
A 45-minute delay ensued as Bernd Maylander pounded round the track in his safety car, while a truck was also sent out in a bid to remove some of the standing water.
Masi gave the green light for qualifying to resume at just before 4pm local time, but the session was suspended only three-and-a-half minutes later when Romain Grosjean beached his Haas at the opening bend. With Grosjean’s Haas removed from the sand trap, Q1 finished, one hour and 10 minutes after it started.
Both Ferraris were dumped out of Q2, with Sebastian Vettel 12th and Charles Leclerc 14th before Stroll ended Mercedes’ exclusive run of poles at every round of this Covid-disturbed campaign.
On Sunday, Stroll will become the first Canadian to start a grand prix from the front of the pack since former world champion Jacques Villeneuve 23 years ago.