With Formula One set to present a finely balanced, tense title contest, Lewis Hamilton’s pole position for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was an aptly decisive display of driving on a knife-edge. The world champion claimed the top spot against the odds and with no little surprise against an expected Red Bull triumph.
There was almost nothing in it but, as he has done so many times in the past, Hamilton was unmatched when it mattered, beating the Red Bulls of Sergio Pérez and Max Verstappen into second and third place.
Hamilton’s pole lap was a stunning run through the glorious parkland of the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari. He strung together a near perfect sequence through the fast, flowing challenge of this decidedly old-school circuit, which punishes errors but rewards drivers who can place their car on the limit while holding the very edge of the line required.
Using every inch of the track is imperative for a good time here and coming into qualifying it was Red Bull who appeared to have the pace advantage. “I knew it would take something special,” said Hamilton “It would have to be the perfect lap to beat the Red Bulls, they have been so fast all weekend.”
Perfection beckoned. On his first hot lap in Q3 Hamilton flew, with a time of 1min 14.411sec, nine-hundredths in front of Verstappen.
Hamilton had the edge through sector one with the Dutchman quickest in the final two – nip and tuck across the lap – and there was nothing in it for the final runs as the track reached peak condition. Hamilton did not improve and Verstappen and Pérez pushed to the limit but could not match the world champion. Indeed the Mexican did superbly to beat his teammate, who made a small error, finishing just three-hundredths down on Hamilton, with Verstappen eight-hundredths back.
The scale of the achievement was clear as Hamilton and his race engineer, Pete Bonnington, sounded shocked at their feat as they congratulated one another over team radio. Hamilton said it was close to perhaps his greatest moment over the single lap discipline, his extraordinary pole at Singapore in 2018. “It was a real surprise,” he said. “No one in the team expected to be on pole today but of course that was what we were gunning for and that really was the tidiest lap I could put together and a little bit more. Whether or not it was a Singapore lap? It was a different vibe but it definitely was good.”
Red Bull had more pace in the season opener in Bahrain but Mercedes have worked tirelessly since to improve the balance and operating window of their car and it has paid off.
Yet Hamilton acknowledged that qualifying had proved just how competitive the title fight would be. “It is going to be close this season,” he said. “It is going to take laps like that and us as a team performing as close to perfection as possible, not leaving any stone unturned. That is the idea going into most weekends but we can’t afford any slip-ups, and so far we have been firing on all cylinders.”
As a further illustration of how fine the line between success and failure can be at Imola there was crushing disappointment for McLaren’s Lando Norris, who had driven brilliantly throughout qualifying. On his final lap he appeared to have pulled off a coup with a superb run to second. But in doing so he went perhaps a foot outside the track limits at Piratella, enough for his time to be deleted, relegating him to seventh.
Such are the margins that make the difference, as Hamilton acknowledged. “We are operating at such a high level, the differences are milliseconds between us all. We could all go back and look at our data and say: ‘We can go faster,’ but it’s what you do in that one moment that counts.”
With overtaking very hard on the narrow circuit here, track position will be all. Hamilton is in the best position to exploit it but with Red Bull having two drivers at the very front of the mix and the world champion’s teammate Valtteri Bottas languishing in eighth, Mercedes’ rivals for once have a potential strategic advantage.
The numbers at the sharp end here were infinitesimal but on a grander scale Hamilton is hitting enormous boundaries. This, his 99th career pole, one short of a unique century, is his first at Imola. Having also taken the top spot last season at Mugello and Portimão, which had never previously hosted F1, he has now reached the extraordinary and unmatched tally of having scored pole at 30 different circuits around the world in his 15 years of competing. It is a breadth of success that is unlikely to ever be matched.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc impressed in fourth, as did Pierre Gasly in fifth for AlphaTauri. McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo was in sixth, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon was in ninth and Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll in 10th.
Carlos Sainz was disappointed to go out in 11th for Ferrari and the former world champions Sebastian Vettel, 13th for Aston Martin, and Fernando Alonso, 15th for Alpine, both failed to make Q3. George Russell and Nicholas Latifi did well for Williams in 12th and 14th.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi were in 16th and 17th for Alfa Romeo. Haas’s Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin were in 18th and 19th. Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda went off into the barriers in Q1 after losing his rear at Variante Alta, finishing in 20th place.