SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Charles Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to take four pole positions in a row on Saturday in a Russian Grand Prix qualifying session that bridged the generations.
Formula One leader Lewis Hamilton joined the Monegasque, who was three years old when Schumacher racked up four successive poles in 2000, on the front row with Mercedes unable to match Ferrari’s pace but on a different tyre strategy.
Leclerc, 21, has now out-qualified his four-times world champion team mate Sebastian Vettel, last weekend’s Singapore winner, for nine successive races. The pole was his sixth of the season and of his career.
“The car felt amazing. It definitely feels great to be back on pole but I don’t know if it’s the best track to start on pole,” said Leclerc after lapping the Olympic Park circuit in one minute 31.628 seconds.
“It definitely feels very special but I don’t really want to think about those (Schumacher) stats for now.
“There’s still a long way to go tomorrow, we’ve been competitive all weekend long and the race simulation seems positive too. It’s looking good for tomorrow.”
Hamilton had been third behind the two Ferraris after the first flying laps of the final session but the man who has more career poles than any driver still lifted himself on to the front row.
His time was 0.4 seconds off Leclerc’s best but denied Ferrari a front-row sweep by 0.023 ahead of a race that has only ever been won by Mercedes since its debut in 2014.
“It was a tough qualifying session because these guys have some crazy speeds on the straights,” said the five-times champion after ending up in a Ferrari sandwich.
“They go to another level. You know that whole ‘party mode’ you talked about us having? They have something else beyond that — jet mode.
“I gave it absolutely everything I had at the end. I’m so glad it came together, I wasn’t expecting it to.”
While Leclerc will start on the fastest, soft tyres, Hamilton will line up on mediums in an intriguing strategy twist.
Max Verstappen qualified fourth for Red Bull but the Dutch youngster carries a five-place grid penalty due to an engine change, moving Hamilton’s team mate and title rival Valtteri Bottas up to the second row.
Hamilton leads Bottas by 65 points with six races remaining and is well placed to extend his lead on Sunday, given that he is 96 points clear of closest non-Mercedes rivals Leclerc and Verstappen in the standings.
“It was tricky today,” said Bottas, who was on pole in Russia last year.
“In the last sector, corner 13, pretty much every lap there was like a snap from the rear end. On both runs in Q3 I just couldn’t drive around the issue.”
Verstappen’s Thai team mate Alexander Albon crashed out of the first phase, smashing backwards into the barriers at turn 13 and bringing out the red flags, after Williams’s Robert Kubica had also spun.
“I went in a bit hot like Max did (in final practice) and I lost the rear. There’s a tailwind in that corner and it just caught me out... It was a silly mistake,” said Albon.
McLaren’s Carlos Sainz starts fifth with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg sixth on a day when the Woking-based team announced it would be switching from the French manufacturer’s engines to Mercedes from 2021.
Sainz’s rookie team mate Lando Norris will start seventh with Haas’s Romain Grosjean eighth and Renault’s Australian Daniel Ricciardo joining former Red Bull team mate Verstappen on the fifth row.
The only Russian on the starting grid, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, will line up last due to engine penalties.
Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ken Ferris and Clare Fallon