Lewis Hamilton seized pole position in the dying seconds of qualifying for the first Portuguese Grand Prix in 24 years on Saturday to deny and dismay Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas once again.
The pole, in a session delayed for half an hour while loose drainage covers were fixed, made it 12 out of 12 for Mercedes this season and was a record-extending 97th for the six-time world champion.
It was also a bitter blow for Bottas, 69 points behind Hamilton in the championship, after the Finn had been quickest in every practice session as well as the first two stages of qualifying and the first laps of the final part.
Hamilton’s ninth pole of the year leaves him perfectly placed for an all-time record 92nd victory on Sunday at the Algarve circuit near Portimao, two weeks after he matched Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s 91.
“I can’t tell you how hard that was today. Yes we’ve got a great car but you have to drive the nuts off it to pull out a lap,” said the Briton.
“Valtteri’s been so quick this weekend, you’ve seen he’s topped every session. So I’ve just been digging and digging and digging and trying to find that extra time.”
Hamilton found it in the end by doing one more lap than Bottas on the medium tyre to beat the Finn, also on the same rubber, by 0.102 of a second with his final effort.
Hamilton had gone fastest initially, only for Bottas to beat him. The same occurred after the second laps before Hamilton’s decisive third.
“At the end there I chose to do three laps to give me a chance to have a stab at beating his time,” said the Briton, who had already done one lap on the softs.
“I think he decided to do one (on the mediums) so it was like OK, this could provide me with an opportunity and it worked. That last lap, it got better and better as I went through it,” said the champion.
Bottas recognised he had got it wrong: “In the end, I should have gone for two,” he said.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified third on the soft tyres, with Charles Leclerc fourth for Ferrari in a boost for the Italian team after recent struggles.
Leclerc’s team mate and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel managed only 15th, a place behind the Williams of George Russell.
“It is almost like a different league,” said the German. “I try everything I can. The laps I am satisfied with are still too slow. I try to bring the best out of myself and the car. I can’t do more than that.”
Mexican Sergio Perez, who has been linked to Russell’s seat for 2021 when Vettel is replacing him at Racing Point, qualified fifth.
Verstappen’s team mate Alexander Albon, sent a not-so-veiled warning from Red Bull principal Christian Horner that his seat was not secure for next season, starts sixth and ahead of the McLaren pairing of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly lines up ninth with Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo 10th on the grid after shunting backwards into the tyre wall at the end of the second session.
The Australian was unable to set a time in the final phase.