MONZA, Italy (Reuters) – Triple world champion Lewis Hamilton took a record 69th Formula One pole position with a wet weather masterclass at the Italian Grand Prix on Saturday while Ferrari’s championship leader Sebastian Vettel struggled.
The Mercedes driver, who equaled Michael Schumacher’s all-time record last weekend in Belgium, was more than a second quicker than closest rival Max Verstappen in treacherous conditions.
“It’s great to break this record at such a historic circuit and in such a beautiful country,” Hamilton, who is seven points behind leader Vettel and can take the overall lead on Sunday, told the crowd.
“I am going to have some pasta tonight to celebrate.”
The much-delayed session was one of the longest on record, ending with late drama some three and half hours after it started.
Dutch teenager Verstappen and his Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo both have grid penalties after power unit and gearbox changes and will drop down towards the back of the grid for Sunday’s race.
That will lift Vettel from eighth to sixth, but behind Ferrari team mate Kimi Raikkonen, while Canadian rookie teenager Lance Stroll was promoted to a stunning front-row slot for Williams.
In another eye-catching performance from a hectic session full of late drama, France’s Esteban Ocon will start third for Force India and alongside Hamilton’s Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas.
That will mean Vettel has three Mercedes-powered cars between him and Hamilton in Sunday’s race.
It was the fourth year in a row that the Briton has taken pole at Monza, the fastest circuit on the calendar, but he left it until the final seconds to put it beyond all doubt after Verstappen had gone fastest.
The Briton did it with a monumental lap, 1.148 seconds quicker, with clouds of spray thrown up from the car as he gave it everything with one final dramatic effort.
“I have no words. Lewis’ lap was unbelievable,” said the Mercedes team’s non-executive chairman Niki Lauda, himself a triple champion and multiple past winner at Italy’s historic “Temple of Speed”.
Vettel, who took his first grand prix win at Monza with Toro Rosso in 2008 after taking pole in similar conditions, never looked to be in the game.
If that left the passionate Ferrari fans crestfallen at the prospect of another difficult weekend at their home circuit, the German put on a brave face.
”I don’t know what the problem was. I was surprised by how quick the others went, we couldn’t match them,“ he told reporters. ”There are a couple of things we will look into. Something didn’t work.
“We have a good car so we don’t need to be afraid. Tomorrow we can make up a lot of ground and you can overtake here.”
After final practice was effectively a washout, qualifying was always a battle against the elements with the session halted after just four minutes when Romain Grosjean crashed his Haas into the barriers.
“The impact wasn’t strong – I hit the barriers at an angle but spinning on a straight shouldn’t happen in Formula One,” he said angrily.
Hamilton occupied himself during the delay by engaging with his millions of fans on social media and playing video games. He then got back in the car and did it for real.
“I came across the line and I didn’t know if I had it but it felt a good lap,” he said. “Sixty nine. I can’t believe it.”
Dry weather is expected on Sunday, which should also favor Hamilton as he bids for a third win in four years at Monza.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin,; Editing by Ed Osmond