Russian GP quali: Leclerc claims fourth successive pole to beat Hamilton and Vettel in Sochi

Charles Leclerc continued his impressive run of form by claiming a fourth successive pole position for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix at the Sochi Autodrom.

The Ferrari driver, who also took pole in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, clocked a mega 1m31.628s lap on the soft compound tyre to finish .402s ahead of rival Lewis Hamilton, with Sebastian Vettel third from Max Verstappen, who will start ninth as the result of a five-pace grid penalty.

Valtteri Bottas will therefore take the fourth grid slot, ahead of Carlos Sainz, Nico Hulkenberg and Lando Norris, Romain Grosjean promoted to eighth with Daniel Ricciardo tenth.

“The car was amazing, it definitely feels great to be back on pole but I don’t know if it’s the best track to be on pole,” said Leclerc after when interviewed by 2009 world champion Jenson Button. “The straight is very long after the start, so tomorrow the start will be very important as always but here probably even more because of the straight length.”

When reminded by Button that the last person to score four successive poles for Ferrari was Michael Schumacher, Leclerc took a pragmatic view of his achievement.

“It definitely feels very special, but I don’t really want to think about those stats for now, I just want to focus on the job and there’s still a long way to go tomorrow but it’s definitely a good start. We’ve been competitive all weekend long and the race simulation seems competitive too, so it’s looking good for tomorrow.”

After Ferrari brought aerodynamic upgrades to Singapore, they have looked easily the quickest car this weekend, smashing their Mercedes rivals in straight line speed and now also looking good in the corners, consistently faster in the middle sector.

Despite this being Mercedes’ worst pole drought since 2013, Hamilton was able to dial in a brilliant lap to split the Ferraris on the grid.

“I tell you, it was a tough qualifying session, because these guys have some crazy speeds on the straights, so they go to a whole new level,” Hamilton told Button. “You know that party moment you talked about us having, they have something else beyond that, jet mode! Nonetheless, I gave it absolutely everything I had at the end and the team did such a great job to just tinker and push forwards and I’m so glad it came together. I wasn’t expecting to get on the front row, that’s for sure.”

Vettel, outqualified by Leclerc in the last eight races, was understandably disappointed with his performance. Yet having won the Singapore Grand Prix from a similar position, the German is mindful that a repeat is possible come race day.

“Obviously, I’m not entirely happy,” added Vettel. “I think I couldn’t extract the absolute maximum from the car, it was a but disruptive in Q1 but by the time we got to Q3, I thought it was okay. Turn 1 is a long way and we have seen with different tyre strategy compared to the Mercs, the race will be decided tomorrow. The speed is there, so let’s keep it up.”

With Kvyat already starting from the back of the grid due to a PU change, the big casualties of Q1 were Alexander Albon and Kimi Raikkonen, the Red Bull driver losing control at Turn 13 and sliding backwards into the barriers, whilst Raikkonen made a mistake into the final corner.

And after an encouraging Friday free practice, it was to be a frustrating afternoon for Acronis partner team Racing Point, Sergio Perez managing only the 12th fastest time and Lance Stroll 15th after making a late mistake in Q2.

“Ultimately a disappointing session where we didn’t deliver on the promise we have shown in the lead up to qualifying,” said team boss Otmar Szafnauer. “Both drivers made small errors on their final Q2 laps and missed the cut for Q3 as a result. The margins were incredibly close today in the middle of the pack and dropping a tenth of a second here and there proved costly.

“It means we’ve got a bit more work to do tomorrow to score points. The car has solid race pace – we’ve seen that during the long runs yesterday – but at the same time it’s tough to overtake here. We will think through the strategy options tonight and fight hard tomorrow to score points”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.