By Abhishek Takle
SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc put in a dazzling lap under the Singapore spotlights to seize his third pole position in a row on Saturday, with Mercedes’ world champion Lewis Hamilton alongside.
The 21-year-old Monegasque, who started the last two races in Belgium and Italy from the front and went on to win both, lit up the timing screens with a time of one minute, 36.217 seconds.
Hamilton was 0.191 seconds slower, with Leclerc’s Ferrari team mate Sebastian Vettel qualifying third after aborting his final lap and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen fourth.
“Look at the time, I lost control three times in the lap,” exclaimed a relieved Leclerc over the team radio on his slowing down lap.
“We came here knowing that it would be a difficult track for us, but the team has done an amazing job to bring the package we needed,” he added once out of the car.
“We brought some new bits that worked properly…then we had a very tough Friday, yesterday was definitely not my day, I didn’t feel comfortable in the car…but I worked hard and it paid off today.”
Ferrari, who have struggled around twisty circuits, had not been the favourites going into the weekend but Leclerc marked them out as contenders after setting the pace in the final practice session.
The race has been won from pole eight times out of 11 editions.
Hamilton, last year’s race winner and the runaway championship leader with a 63-point advantage over team mate Valtteri Bottas, said he was happy to be on the front row.
“I don’t know where Ferrari picked up their pace because this is not known to be one of their tracks, but they did a great job,” said the four-times Singapore winner.
“It was very, very close. I’m sure I nearly hit the wall a couple of times but it was as much as I could get out of the car,” added the Briton.
Vettel, who came into the weekend eclipsed by Leclerc, appeared to have pulled out some of the old magic with provisional pole but pulled into the pits after errors on his final lap.
Saturday was the seventh successive time the four-times world champion, without a win for more than a year, had been outqualified by Leclerc.
“Obviously, the final attempt should have been better, but the car was quick and I was feeling good,” said the 32-year-old whose future at Ferrari is the subject of much speculation despite having a contract that runs until the end of 2020.
“We had a tiny wobble so there was no point finishing the lap because we were quite far behind,” Vettel added.
“It will certainly feel different tomorrow, but it should be a good race.”
Dutch 21-year-old Verstappen will still fancy his chances with Red Bull finishing second in Singapore for the last five years.
Bottas, who has never started the race in the top three, qualified fifth. Thai rookie Alexander Albon, in only his third start for Red Bull after moving up from Toro Rosso, lines up sixth in what is almost a home race.
Carlos Sainz qualified seventh for McLaren ahead of Renault pair Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg with McLaren’s British rookie Lando Norris rounding out the top 10.
(Writing by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)