Sebastian Vettel sensationally pulled out of his first quick lap in Q3 with turbo problems and will now start at the back of the grid for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Meanwhile, title-rival Lewis Hamilton turned around his poor pace during practice and the early parts of qualifying to deliver a stunning time of 1:30.276 to land pole at Sepang.
Qualifying only 0.045 seconds behind was Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen who starts ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. Valtteri Bottas could only finish in fifth place despite running with an aerodynamic upgrade, while starting in sixth will be Force India’s Esteban Ocon, in seventh is McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne and in eighth is Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Remarkable Turn-Around for Hamilton
Hamilton came to Malaysia with a 28-point lead over title hopeful Sebastian Vettel and looked to need every bit of that buffer after a dismal practice.
The Englishman was running a second off the pace on Friday and still a huge half a second behind on Saturday morning.
It was a major concern for the Mercedes team partly because both cars were using the new aerodynamic upgrade so they split their strategy with Hamilton returning to the order setup.
Hamilton then showed his championship qualities by being within a few tenths of a second in Q1 and Q2, and then delivering a stomping hot lap when it counts in Q3 to be 0.232 seconds faster than Raikkonen. There were a few tense moments when the Finn looked to be having a good final lap in qualifying but Hamilton stayed ahead by the narrowest of margins.
“I have no idea how the guys turned it around but I am really grateful,” Hamilton said.
“We had no idea what was going to happen today.”
“I’m very grateful. The car felt good.”
Vettel stumbles in his title fight.
Few will have predicted before qualifying that Lewis Hamilton would rebound from his dreadful practice times to take pole and Vettel would be starting from the back of the grid without completing a qualifying lap.
But that’s what happened at Sepang and there’s a strong sense that the repercussions will be felt for some time yet.
Already a huge 28 points behind in the title contest, Vettel could ill afford the engine troubles that saw the power unit on the Scuderia replaced as a precaution ahead of qualifying. Vettel then lost turbo on that new engine on his first quick run in Q3 and will now be starting from the back of the grid.
Ferrari spokesman Alberto Antonini said: “Unfortunately we do not have an explanation for what happened. It seems when he was out on his preparation lap he didn’t feel the right amount of power in the engine.”
“The reason for that, we really have to investigate. Unfortunately, the time was too tight to do so at the end of the session.”
“We have to know exactly whether it was something wrong with the settings, or if a piece in the system didn’t work as it was supposed to. Obviously, we have nothing to lose if we start at the back of the grid tomorrow.”
Gasly makes strong debut for Torro Rosso
Pierre Gasly was drafted in at the last minute by Torro Rosso to replace underperforming Danil Kyvat.
The team admitted that the news Gasly would race in Malaysia and then Japan “shocked” Kyvat but it was part of a move to towards confirming their 2018 driver line-up.
Current Torro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz will be heading to Renault next season so a seat has seemingly opened for the well-regarded Frenchman.
And indeed he didn’t disappoint in qualifying by finishing only just one place and 0.156 seconds behind Carlos Sainz. So far this season Kyvatt’s average deficit to Sainz has been 0.173 seconds.