Valtteri Bottas could barely believe the extent of his qualifying victory over Lewis Hamilton for the Spanish Grand Prix.
Bottas issued a statement of championship intent after beating Hamilton to pole position by an enormous 0.634 seconds.
It marked the Finnish driver’s third straight pole to continue his fine start to the campaign.
Bottas might consider himself fortunate to still be sitting alongside Hamilton at Mercedes following last season’s winless campaign.
But he has bounced back with a swagger this year, and heads into Sunday’s race at the Circuit de Catalunya on the outskirts of Barcelona holding a one-point title advantage over Hamilton – the pair tied on two victories apiece.
“For sure the gap to Lewis is big, and I never would have expected that,” said Bottas, who yelled in delight over the radio upon hearing he had taken pole.
“To complete a lap like that is a nice feeling, a nice adrenaline rush, and in terms of qualifying this has been my best start to a season.”
Hamilton paid tribute to Bottas, but there is no question he will be irked by the margin of defeat. The world champion has not been at his best this weekend, and he made an uncharacteristic mistake, running wide in his maiden assault on pole. The Briton was then unable to improve on his second attempt.
“It was a bit of a tacky Q3 for me,” said Hamilton. “It is kind of rare, but it happens.
“They were not very good laps – it is as simple as that. Valtteri was just quicker today. He deserved the pole. I am looking at all the solutions to improve in qualifying. We will get there eventually.”
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel will line up in third, but the German, who is already 35 points off the championship pace, finished the best part of nine tenths adrift.
The Scuderia hoped their new engine would provide the power boost required to reignite their faltering title charge yet they are further away from the Mercedes cars than they have been at any stage this season.
“Coming here, we didn’t expect that,” admitted Vettel.
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen managed to finish ahead of Vettel’s team-mate Charles Leclerc to add to Ferrari’s disappointment.
Ferrari’s failure to build on an encouraging pre-season is ensuring Bottas may be Hamilton’s closest rival for a sixth world crown.
And it could be argued that Hamilton is sensing that, too. In the build-up to this race, the Briton has upped the ante on Bottas, challenging his team-mate to last the title course.
He was also keen to point out that one of his championship-winning engineers, Riccardo Musconi, has moved to Bottas’s side of the garage.
It was at this venue three years ago where Hamilton and Nico Rosberg collided on the opening lap of the race, and the run down to the first bend, one of the longest on the calendar, could prove critical in determining the outcome on Sunday.
Hamilton said he was too kind to Bottas during the opening corners at the last round in Azerbaijan – the Finn going on to take the chequered flag.
So, will Hamilton adapt his strategy on Sunday?
“I will approach it as we always do,” he said.
British teenager Lando Norris, meanwhile, starts 10th after finishing two places ahead of Carlos Sainz in the sister McLaren.
Novice George Russell out-qualified Williams team-mate Robert Kubica for a fifth consecutive outing, but he will occupy the final grid spot, penalised for a gearbox change after he crashed out of final practice.
- Press Association