SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton once again made the difference for Mercedes as the Briton celebrated his 70th career Formula One pole in Malaysia on Saturday.
The championship leader had been sixth on Friday and only fifth in Saturday’s final practice but he put in the lap that mattered after engine problems sidelined Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel.
“This again was a Lewis lap,” said Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda.
“It’s very difficult to identify what is the car (rather than the driver) but we know that when Lewis puts the throttle down, he really does it well. So I think it’s more the driver here than the car, to be honest.”
Hamilton, 28 points clear of Vettel with six races remaining, has now been on pole for four years in a row in Malaysia and five times in total - equalling Michael Schumacher’s record at the circuit.
But champions Mercedes have looked off the pace this weekend while Ferrari, whose drivers collided at the start in Singapore two weeks ago, have been quick with Vettel favoured for pole before his car’s problem.
The German will now start at the back of the field.
“It was a blistering lap and he put it all together but we are left with some confusion,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports television.
Although Hamilton pipped Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen to pole, his Finnish team mate Valtteri Bottas will start only fifth on the grid.
The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen, celebrating his 20th birthday, and Australian Daniel Ricciardo were third and fourth.
Ricciardo won last year in Malaysia from that same starting slot after Hamilton’s engine expired while he was leading the race.
“We didn’t put the tyres in the right window the whole weekend and then when the temperatures dropped and cloud cover started to come over the circuit, the car was very quick. So we need some answers,” Wolff said.
”On paper the Ferrari is the fastest car, followed by the Red Bull and then us.
“But then we have the quali result so we just have to wait and see what happens,” added the Austrian.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond