2013 Hungarian GP: Lewis Hamilton snatches pole from Sebastian Vettel at the last
Mercedes man's 30th career pole, Vettel second and Grosjean third
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 27/07/13 5:22pm
In what is fast becoming a theme in Hamilton and Mercedes' compelling debut season together, the Briton had gone into Saturday downcast about the W04's potential only to yet again come to the fore in the team's qualifying stronghold as the two W04s ran first and second through the opening pair of knockout phases.
However, for the second successive race Hamilton was more than made to work for pole - his fourth for Mercedes and milestone 30th of his career - by the reigning World Champion after Vettel immediately raised the stakes in Q3 with the fastest time of the weekend to that point.
Hamilton yet again summoned more pace when he really needed it on the final runs as he uncorked a superior 1:19.388 to put the head of the grid out of reach for Vettel, despite the Red Bull man making his own improvement behind on the road. Nonetheless the front-row represents another ominous starting position for the man with the undoubtedly faster race car.
With disbelief etched across his words on his slow-down lap, Hamilton remarked "is that pole?" when the result was relayed to him by his engineer. A surprise it may have been but what would certainly be an even bigger shock on Sunday is if Hamilton, at the fourth attempt, can convert the front of the grid into his first victory for his new employers irrespective of the driver's own past successes around the tight and twisty circuit.
That has turned into Saturday evening's perennial question in F1 and certainly the 2008 World Champion's dire-sounding assessment on Friday that the W04 had displayed "shocking" race pace during the practice simulations amid Budapest's sweltering temperatures certainly doesn't bode well given the mercury is set to nudge 38-39 degrees on Sunday.
Indeed, such are Mercedes' long-standing problems to get on top of tyre degradation, that Lotus's Romain Grosjean may well be more fancied to take the final win before the summer break after the Frenchman underlined his renaissance with a fine third place on the grid.
Grosjean, fresh from his podium finish in Germany three weeks ago, had run ahead of title-chasing team-mate Kimi Raikkonen all weekend and duly outqualified the more highly-rated Finn by three places and over two tenths of a second.
Indeed, Vettel's other closest title rival - Ferrari's Fernando Alonso - will share the third row with Raikkonen after what appeared a step forward in the F138's single-lap pace on Friday didn't materialise into an overdue challenge for the front two rows.
The under-pressure Felipe Massa took seventh in the other Ferrari while for the fourth straight weekend Daniel Ricciardo again made Q3 for Toro Rosso, the Australian's eighth place serving to burnish his credentials to win the race to earn a Red Bull promotion in 2014.
Despite a fraught build-up to qualifying as McLaren's engineers hurriedly worked to repair his MP4-28 after a late crash in practice, Sergio Perez survived a Q1 near-miss to prove the Woking team's sole representative in the top ten. Thereafter he didn't set a representative time so to leave his strategic options open for the race.
That was the same strategy adopted by Red Bull's Mark Webber but this approach was effectively forced on the Australian as, for not the first time in recent seasons, his car's KERS unit gave up the ghost at a vital stage of qualifying.
Having down well to simply keep himself in the top ten during Q2, Red Bull unsurprisingly opted against sending Webber out in the final phase given the resultant loss of performance would have made a sufficiently higher grid position unlikely. The Australian is therefore free to choose his starting tyre strategy for the opening stint on Sunday.
Jenson Button's own problems during Q2 mean the two-times Hungaroring winner will start only 13th, the Briton having complained of understeer with his MP4-28 around the tortuous circuit.
However, that was still five spots higher than compatriot Paul Di Resta who was at a loss to explain his third Q1 exit in the last five events for Force India. While the Scot's two previous early exits were attributed to operational errors in changeable conditions, he admitted that on this occasion the team simply hadn't been able to find the normal step forward in pace on soft tyres.
"I can't work it out. We made some progress ahead of qualifying and went a second quicker than we did on the medium all weekend which I thought was looking very positive. We then put a set of the soft tyres on and only found six tenths instead of the 2.2 seconds that we should find," a disappointed Di Resta told Sky Sports F1.
"I think everyone within the whole team is confused. We can't work why that should be a big performance delta. It is almost like it is a different compound in tyre. We will have to do something special for tomorrow."
With team-mate Adrian Sutil falling at the second hurdle - although the German will still start 11th - it would appear to confirm that Force India's strong early-season form has been checked by the return to 2012-spec Pirelli tyre structures.
Judging by Friday's high-fuel simulations, that well-publicised change appears to have done little to alleviate Mercedes' very individual tyre concerns and means that despite their seventh pole in eight grands prix and the tight nature of this particular track, the battle for victory on Sunday is set to prove a somewhat more open affair.