AP Sports Writer
MONZA, Italy (AP) – Full throttle at more than 300 kph (nearly 200 mph), his vision impaired by heavy rain pounding down on his shiny golden helmet, Lewis Hamilton pulled out a clutch performance to enter the F1 record books on Saturday.
Hamilton kept his focus through a 2 1/2-hour rain delay. Then he drew on all of his talent, ability and experience to overcome a late challenge from rising rival Max Verstappen, claim his 69th career pole position and break the Formula One record previously held by his childhood idol, Michael Schumacher.
Verstappen had taken the top spot just before Hamilton’s final lap, so when Hamilton reclaimed P1 with time expired he rapidly pumped his fist multiple times. It was the type of celebration normally reserved for race victories.
“After such a long time waiting in the rain, I think the racing fans got their money’s worth from the dominant lap Lewis produced right at the end – even if they were probably cheering a bit more for the cars in red than for us,” said Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport at Hamilton’s Mercedes team.
“It was a brilliant lap, after a session where he was the quickest man throughout, and it was undoubtedly a performance worthy of claiming the all-time pole position record,” Wolff added.
Indeed, it may not have been exactly what the red-clad Ferrari fans came to see at the Italian Grand Prix.
After all, Schumacher won five of his record seven world championships with Ferrari from 2000-04 and the automaker is celebrating its 70th anniversary this weekend.
But Hamilton certainly earned it.
“Honestly I came across the line and I didn’t know if I had it but it felt like a good lap,” he said. “I can’t believe it – 69 – I just can’t believe it. I’m so grateful.”
Hamilton finished more than a second ahead of Verstappen while Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull qualified third, although both Red Bulls are taking grid penalties for engine changes.
“There was a lot of pressure for that last lap so there was a lot to risk but I gave it everything,” Hamilton said.
Lance Stroll steered his Williams to fourth, Esteban Ocon of Force India placed fifth and Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas came sixth.
With the Red Bull penalties, the 18-year-old Canadian rookie Stroll will start on the front row in Sunday’s race alongside Hamilton – making him the youngest F1 driver to achieve that feat.
The 20-year-old Ocon will be third on the grid and Bottas fourth.
“These young kids coming through are keeping me on my toes,” Hamilton said.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel qualified seventh and eighth, respectively, meaning they will start fifth and sixth.
Verstappen and Ricciardo will start 15th and 18th, respectively.
Hamilton is looking to erase his seven-point deficit behind championship leader Vettel.
“The key point to take away from this afternoon is that we will start the race with both cars ahead of our direct competition, and we will be aiming to keep it that way to the flag,” Wolff said.
Hamilton established the pole record in just 201 races, far fewer than Schumacher’s 308. Still, the Briton has a long way to go to match Schumacher’s record of 91 race wins, standing second with 58.
“I wish I was better with words to be honest,” Hamilton said when asked what it meant to break Schumacher’s mark in this setting. “I wish I had something iconic to say.
“Growing up watching the sport as we all have, and witnessing greatness in other individuals such as Michael and just dreaming one day of doing what he’s doing or they’re doing and then to actually be there years later, I am proof that dreams are something that can come true,” Hamilton added. “So I think it’s really cool for young kids to be watching today.”
It’s also the fourth straight year that Hamilton will start first in Monza and it was his sixth pole overall on the track, breaking another record held by Senna and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Minutes before qualifying ended on the darkened circuit, Hamilton asked his team via radio, “Do I have time to slow down? I can’t see anything.” Cars ahead of him were throwing up a long trail of wet spray.
Somehow, though, Hamilton completed one more fast lap.
“Today was a real challenge with the break,” Hamilton said. “It was a real challenge not to get your mind drained with energy. And racing in the rain is a real challenge.”
Qualifying started on time but then was suspended after Romain Grosjean aquaplaned 6 1/2 minutes into the session.
Grosjean hit the barriers then drifted across the main straightaway without harm, just seconds after the Frenchman told his Haas team via radio: “I can’t see where I’m going. It’s too dangerous.”
“We shouldn’t have gone out at all,” Grosjean said later.
During the delay, Hamilton and Bottas played a video game, while Verstappen and Ricciardo took over a live TV camera from the official broadcaster.
With the camera on his shoulder, Ricciardo walked into the Mercedes garage and zoomed in on Hamilton’s car before being escorted away.
“I was just playing around, trying to entertain the fans,” Ricciardo said. “It was very nice of them to stick around today in the rain.”
Hamilton, above all, made it worth the wait.
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