SPIELBERG, Austria — Lewis Hamilton showed why he's one of Formula One's best ever in wet conditions, dominating on a rain-drenched track to take pole position for the Styrian Grand Prix on Saturday.
It was the Mercedes driver's record-extending 89th career pole and particularly impressive as he first beat Red Bull driver Max Verstappen's mark and then his own leading mark on his final lap.
“That was awesome,” Hamilton said. “Honestly it was a fantastic lap, that lap was as close to perfect as I could get it in those conditions.”
He placed 1.216 seconds ahead of Verstappen and 1.398 clear of McLaren driver Carlos Sainz Jr.
Despite the difficulty level, he kept going faster.
“I definitely had my heart in my mouth," Hamilton said. “You have a cloud of spray ahead of you, and the same behind. You don't know where anyone is, you don't know what time it is. All you know is that you're going super fast.”
It was arguably Hamilton's best pole since Singapore two years ago. Although that lap was spectacularly quick, it was on a bone-dry track with searing heat, humidity and floodlights illuminating the circuit.
This was the polar opposite: A treacherous, slippery track with huge puddles and dark rolling clouds overhead eliminating much visibility.
“It was on the limit but that's racing. I'm glad they didn't take that away from us, it's so special being out there, so difficult," Hamilton said. "These are the hardest conditions we ever drive in, just one small lapse in concentration and you're off (the track) ... an incredible challenge.”
Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas could not match him this time, qualifying in fourth place after taking pole and winning last Sunday’s Austrian GP.
Verstappen swerved a little on his final attempt at beating Hamilton's time.
“It could have been better but I don’t think it was enough to beat Lewis,” the Dutch driver said.
It was the best career result in qualifying for Sainz Jr. and further evidence of McLaren's improvement after Lando Norris finished last weekend's race in third place.
“It feels amazing, especially that qualifying was one of the toughest I have done," Sainz Jr. said. "There was so much aquaplaning it was crazy. We're completely blind in the car, we don't see what's at the front, what's at the back.”
Sainz. Jr is joining Ferrari next year and showed a coolness under pressure.
“I did enjoy myself but I must say it was quite stressful," he said.
But this was another dismal day for Ferrari, with Sebastian Vettel 10th and Charles Leclerc 11th.
“The main problem was we were just not quick enough,” Leclerc said. “We’re just too slow.”
Driving rain washed out the third and final practice at midday and threatened qualifying altogether. But the cars managed to finally get out onto the Red Bull Ring at around 3:45 p.m. local time (1345 GMT) even though rain was still lashing down.
With drivers told the rain would soon get heavier, they were advised to post a solid time quickly in order to get into the second part of qualifying.
Verstappen said “I can’t see a thing” and Romain Grosjean slid into gravel.
Some unexpected names popped up at the top of the leaderboard, before order was restored as Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen swapped leading times.
“Leave me to it,” Hamilton snapped at his engineer over radio, trying to keep his concentration.
With two minutes left in Q1, the first part of qualifying, Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi lost control of his Alfa Romeo and it swerved sideways and then backward into a crash barrier. His car had to be lifted off the track.
The rain was so heavy throughout the morning that firefighters removed excess water from the roof of one empty hospitality building.
The race is being held without fans because of the coronavirus pandemic. It changed names from last week but is being held at the same track in Spielberg, surrounded by the Styrian mountains.
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Jerome Pugmire, The Associated Press