It’s on days like this, when rain creates tricky driving conditions, that the great drivers come to the fore – and as if we needed further reminding, Lewis Hamilton showed us why he is arguably the greatest driver in Formula 1 history with a scintillating lap at the Red Bull Ring to beat the heir to his throne Max Verstappen to pole by a staggering 1.2s for the Styrian Grand Prix.
Wet weather raised doubts as to whether qualifying would happen at all on Saturday, with final free practice cancelled because of the treacherous conditions, but there was a window of opportunity when the rain eased to the point where the Race Director Michael Masi deemed it safe to get the session under way.
With the track remaining wet throughout, full wet Pirelli tyres were the compound of choice, and the drivers opted to fill up with a little more fuel than usual so they could complete a flurry of laps in quick succession. But there were two drivers who looked the most comfortable out there – Hamilton and Verstappen.
The two main protagonists traded fastest laps as the session unfolded, the kind of battle for pole position that Formula 1 craves, with Hamilton holding the early upper hand.
Verstappen repeatedly complained about the poor visibility on team radio, but it didn’t seem to slow him down, the Dutchman setting the fastest first sector on his final lap to raise hopes he could topple Hamilton.
But he was really fighting the car as he came through the middle sector, catching it three times as the rear snapped, but he could do nothing about his rear stepping out as he negotiated the penultimate corner, pirouetting round and ending any hopes of topping Hamilton.
Mercedes would have almost certainly told Hamilton what had happened to Verstappen, but he cared not. He was in the zone, lighting up the timing sheets and keeping his foot to the floor to obliterate his previous best and take pole by an extraordinary 1.2s.
There were plenty of standout performances elsewhere, Carlos Sainz – a driver who usually excels in wet conditions – hooking up a tasty lap to seal third, his best-ever qualifying position, with last weekend’s race winner Valtteri Bottas fourth, in what his worst qualifying session on this track since joining Mercedes.
Esteban Ocon’s start to life at Renault continued to be rosy, as he finished a brilliant fifth – Renault’s best start since Monza last year, while Lando Norris, who was feeling better after suffering chest pains on Friday, qualified sixth. That’ll become ninth following a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags.
Alex Albon was seventh, with Pierre Gasly eighth – in what was his fourth Q3 appearance in the last six races, with Daniel Ricciardo ninth and Sebastian Vettel rounding out the top 10 in one of the most thrilling qualifying sessions in recent times.
"That was awesome," Hamilton said after placing 1.216 seconds ahead of Verstappen and 1.398 clear of McLaren driver Carlos Sainz Jr.
Verstappen said "I can't see a thing" and Romain Grosjean slid off track into gravel.
"Leave me to it," Hamilton said over radio, trying to keep his concentration with water spraying everywhere in front and around him.
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