Lewis Hamilton put his car on pole for the 95th time before admitting he is braced for one of the most physically demanding races of his life in Sunday’s Tuscan Grand Prix.
Hamilton beat Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes by just 0.059 seconds on Formula One’s first foray to Mugello to take the seventh pole of a campaign which is set to earn the Briton a record-equalling seventh world title.
Ferrari’s test track is being used this weekend as a one-off to commemorate the Italian team’s 1,000th Grand Prix. It has been a miserable year for the Scuderia but they will take some joy in Charles Leclerc starting fifth – less so Sebastian Vettel who qualified a lowly 14th.
For Hamilton, he will move to within just one victory of Michael Schumacher’s record 91 wins – 72 of which the German claimed while racing for Ferrari – should he triumph on Sunday.
But the six-time world champion knows it will not be plain sailing at this fast-sweeping 3.26-mile circuit .
Hamilton will be nudging on 5.5G – almost double the force of a launching Space Shuttle – each of the 59 laps he races through Turns 6 to 9 on Sunday. He will pull 5G or greater in seven of the 15 corners.
Mark Webber did not pull any punches when he assessed the challenge ahead.
“Not one driver’s head is going to stay on around that track,” the nine-time grand prix winner said. “Their necks are going to snap in half. It’s so, so quick.”
“We are all athletes and we train but this track is incredibly physical and it is not at all easy to go through that fast section,” said Hamilton, 35.
“I have found that I am breathing heavier because there is so much focus and there is no room for error. The whole body is completely tense and every muscle is fully engaged. We don’t get to the end of a lap with a low heartrate. This track is phenomenal but it is incredibly challenging, too.”
Hamilton was slower than Bottas throughout practice, but, as he so often does, he saved his best for the crunch. He will now start as the favourite to extend his 47-point championship lead over Bottas by winning for the 90th time in his career. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified third.
Over at Ferrari, the spotlight is on the Prancing Horse at their landmark race. Chairman Louis Camilleri – watching on from the back of the garage – was spared the indignity of seeing his four-time world championship-winning driver fall at the first hurdle. Vettel snuck into Q2 by just five hundredths of a second before qualifying on the seventh of 10 rows.
The German is off to race for Aston Martin next year, and both driver and team will want to hurry through his remaining nine appearances of this sorry chapter.
Camilleri will be among a host of Ferrari stars – past and present – to be involved in a public show celebrating the Italian team’s F1 achievements in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria on Saturday night.
But they will do so in the midst of their worst crisis in a generation. Ferrari head into Sunday’s race sixth in the constructors’ standings, a staggering 220 points behind Mercedes.
Although Leclerc fared much better than Vettel, his performance will do little to improve the mood at the sport’s most decorated team. The Monegasque driver was 1.1 sec slower than Hamilton.
Elsewhere, George Russell extended his unbeaten career qualifying streak to 30-0. The Williams driver has started every grand prix ahead of his team-mate, and here, he will line up in 18th, one slot higher than Nicholas Latifi in the sister car.