Lewis Hamilton secured a remarkable Formula One record at the Italian Grand Prix, taking his 69th pole position, to overtake the mark of 68 set by Michael Schumacher. The Briton did so in suitably momentous fashion, after a lengthy rain delay and in treacherous wet conditions at Monza that required him to show exceptional skill to both set the fastest lap and beat off a concerted attack from the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
F1 served up a long, wet afternoon in qualifying but it was more than worth the wait as Hamilton earned a brace of extraordinary records at Monza and in doing so gave another masterclass in why he is so formidable in the rain. Around him, however, the sport’s young guns were making their claims to be recognised as his heir apparent. The Autodromo Nazionale has seen its fair share of drama and on Saturday the action was truly operatic, ensuring that Sunday’s race promises even more.
Hamilton’s final lap to take pole at the very end of a session that had been delayed by over two and a half hours by heavy rain was a mighty piece of car control as he guided his Mercedes on a knife edge of grip around the 3.6-mile circuit. He is now the leader of an exalted group of drivers holding one of the sport’s greatest achievements. After Giuseppe Farina took F1’s first pole, the record was claimed by Juan Manuel Fangio and then by Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna before Schumacher. He also now has the most poles at the Italian Grand Prix with six, one more than two of F1’s greatest: Fangio and Senna.
Hamilton was characteristically emotional at the result. “I wish I was better with words,” he said. “Growing up, watching the sport and witnessing greatness in other individuals such as Michael [Schumacher]. Just dreaming of one day doing what he’s doing or what they’re doing, so to actually be there many years later, we are and I am, living proof that dreams can come true.
Better still for the British driver, Ferrari could not master the conditions, their car appeared to struggle to work heat in to the wet tyres. Sebastian Vettel, who leads Hamilton by seven points in the world championship, will start from sixth on the grid. If Hamilton converts pole to a win and Vettel cannot claim second – no little task – the British driver will have the outright lead of the title fight for the first time all season. Dry weather is expected so he has every opportunity to take advantage.
“I was surprised by how quick the others went,” admitted Vettel. “At this stage we don’t know why. It was an important day but it is what it is and we will see how it goes tomorrow.”
All of which would have been enough to grab the attention but behind him everyone, it seemed, wanted their time on centre stage. Verstappen and Ricciardo, with their Red Bulls’ power deficit nullified by the weather, exploited this fact to the maximum: both led in Q3 and they finished in second and third, admirably managing the temple of speed’s skating rink with aplomb. It was the team’s best qualifying result of the season but it is not how the grid will shake down as both drivers take penalties for using new power unit components.
Verstappen, who is still only 19, has a 20-place penalty and will start in 14th while Ricciardo drops 25 places and will start in 17th. Behind them, however, others had also been making the best of the conditions and they have reaped the rewards.
Lance Stroll, in his rookie season and eager to prove himself in F1 went a long way to doing so by showing great skill in his first full-wet F1 qualifying session to claim fourth. His Williams has been off the pace this season but in the rain it found its groove and the 18-year-old made the most of it. He will start alongside Hamilton on the front row of the grid in Monza – not an experience he is likely to forget in a hurry.
Immediately behind him another of the sport’s emerging talents was also making his mark. Force India’s Esteban Ocon, the 20-year-old who has scored points in every race bar one this season, achieved his best qualifying result with fifth place, ahead of the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and both Ferraris – which will translate to third on the grid for Ocon, directly behind Hamilton.
The Briton acknowledged their achievement. “These young kids coming through, it’s got to keep me on my toes,” he said. “I think it’s great. I know Ocon and Lance have also been driving so well this year and to come into a series when the cars have changed a lot more physically than before, really thrown in the deep end, they’ve done a great job. To come to this awesome circuit and to be where they are, it shows great promise for their futures.”
Neither of the two young drivers will be awed by the three-times world champion alongside them and he can expect to be challenged but on Saturday Hamilton proved once again to be untouchable, as the record books now reflect.