Lewis Hamilton was at his formidable, remarkable, breathtaking best on his way to pole position at the Styrian Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver produced a virtuoso display of wet-weather driving skill to take the 89th pole of his career on a day on which he was on a separate level from everyone around him, even Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who made a valiant attempt to raise himself on to Hamilton’s plateau.
Throughout his career, Hamilton has generally excelled in wet conditions. His victory at the 2008 British Grand Prix, in which he finished a minute clear of the field and was at times lapping five seconds faster than anyone else, has gone down in the annals as one of the greatest drives in history.
He said he had reached similar levels at the Red Bull Ring on Saturday, when he was 1.216 seconds faster than anyone else in the wettest conditions a qualifying session has been allowed to run in for some time.
“It was a fantastic lap, the last one,” said Hamilton, his face covered in the post-qualifying news conference as required by F1 coronavirus protocols. “The lap I had before was good enough but that last lap was as close to perfect as I could get in those conditions. And considering it was raining more, it makes me even happier knowing I went a little bit quicker.
“It definitely takes me back to times like Silverstone 2008. When you are really at one with the car. The conditions are shifting. It’s a massive challenge. I am smiling under this mask – so, yeah, super-happy.”
It was the sort of performance one has become used to with Hamilton, whose remarkable ability has now led him to the point where he has a chance this year to equal Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world championships.
But the regularity of it does nothing to diminish its capacity to surprise.
“It is difficult for an athlete to explain why they are good at something,” he said. “I know how good I am and that’s a belief we have to have inside of us, all of us.
“It is the same for every athlete and it should apply to everyone doing their jobs around the world. You have to try to be the best and believe you can be the best.
“It is down to focus, to how you study the track, your innate ability to be dynamic and manage the trickiest of conditions with the pressure on you.
“That’s generally what the best athletes in the world do – in the last moments of an NBA game when you have Ray Allen taking the three-point shot, and it gets you through or not. It is what makes those individuals stand out.”
Team boss Toto Wolff said: “Very rarely do you see performances that are just not from this world. Looking at his onboard [camera], he is balancing the car on the edge. Aquaplaning. Throttle control was incredible. I can’t remember when we’ve seen 1.2 seconds between first and second.
“Driver and car merge into one, where a perfect car with the tyres in the right window, and perfect driveability from the power unit, come together with the skill and intelligence of a racing driver. Only then do you see these kinds of performances.”
Verstappen came closest but he was nearly 0.8secs adrift even before Hamilton moved into another dimension with his final lap – and the Dutchman took himself beyond the limit in trying to keep up.
Moments at Turn Five and Turn Seven turned into a spin at Turn Nine, when he understeered wide because he was behind Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, got onto the kerb and lost the car.
Still, it was a typically impressive performance from Verstappen, who was 0.522secs quicker than team-mate Alexander Albon in seventh place.
And there were starring drives elsewhere, too. From McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, in a career-best third place; Renault’s Esteban Ocon in fifth, five-places ahead of his illustrious team-mate Daniel Ricciardo; and George Russell, who not only got the Williams into second qualifying for the first time, but was just 0.091secs off beating Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari for a place in the top 10.
Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes limited the damage caused by Hamilton’s excellence with fourth place, but it was the sort of day to remind the Finn just what he is up against in his attempts to realise his ambition to beat his team-mate to the world title this year.
Hamilton had a difficult race in Austria last weekend. Two mistakes in qualifying, a grid penalty for ignoring yellow flags and then a five-second penalty in the race for taking out Albon have given Bottas a 13-point lead after one race.
But that 1.428-second margin between the Mercedes in the Styrian rain on Saturday will do nothing for Bottas’ confidence and conviction.
Sunday, though, he will say is another day. The weather is expected to be dry, and Verstappen starting on the front row will almost certainly be a thorn in Mercedes’ side.
Both teams have reliability concerns – Verstappen retired last Sunday and Mercedes suffered problems with electrical noise that affected the gearbox and almost caused both cars to retire.
Mercedes think they are on top of the issue, but the drivers will go into the race cautious and under orders, as Wolff said, to stay off the violent Austrian kerbs as much as possible.
“I still have to do the job tomorrow and these guys are no pushover,” Hamilton said, “so it will require a perfect job from myself and the team.”
Hamilton has won nothing yet, but he has certainly laid down a gauntlet of epic proportions with a qualifying performance for the ages.