A rare sight in Formula One qualifying saw record-breaking Lewis Hamilton struggle and Canadian Lance Stroll tame a treacherous track to claim his first pole position on Saturday.
Not only did Hamilton miss out on a 98th career pole, the championship leader qualified only sixth at the Turkish Grand Prix as his Mercedes skidded around on a resurfaced and rain-soaked circuit not used in F1 since 2011.
“The track feels terrible, it’s just like driving on ice,” he said. “This whole weekend has been a nightmare, the grip’s so poor.”
Mercedes is so dominant that Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas took pole in the previous 13 races. This time, Bottas was ninth.
The day belonged to Stroll, a much-criticized driver because his billionaire father owns the Racing Point team and because of poor recent form.
Since clinching the second podium of his career at the Italian GP in early September, Stroll failed to finish three straight races and placed 13th in the other.
“It’s such a great way to bounce back after a few rough weeks,” said Stroll, who had the coronavirus last month. “I haven’t scored a point since my podium in Monza. It’s been a rough run, with incidents and COVID. So much has been going on.”
The Canadian driver showed his ability in the wet by placing 0.3 seconds ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and 1.56 ahead of Racing Point teammate Sergio Perez.
“A special moment for me,” Stroll said. “The highlight of my career.”
His jubilation was evident as he threw himself into the arms of his engineers and mechanics, then clenched his fist as he grabbed a Canadian flag with his other hand.
“I can’t really put it into words. I’m shocked,” Stroll said. “I nailed pretty much every corner and put it together.”
Verstappen looked certain to take pole after topping the first two sections of qualifying and had the leading time in Q3 when his team aborted the lap to switch him from wet tires to intermediate tires.
The move backfired and Verstappen was angry at the call, using an expletive over the team radio to describe the tires.
“We should have been doing better switching to that tire. We definitely missed something there,” Verstappen said. “When you are first all the time, and come out second, it’s not what you want to do.”
Red Bull’s Alexander Albon finished fourth followed by Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, while both Ferraris failed to make it into Q3 – Sebastian Vettel was 12th place and Charles Leclerc 14th.
Embarrassingly for Ferrari, Alfa Romeo drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi both made it into Q3 using Ferrari engines.
The track was still drenched when drivers went out for the start of qualifying, known as Q1. Even at greatly reduced speed, they zig-zagged.
After Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri went off into the grass, the session was halted by the red flag for about 40 minutes.
Leclerc was in 16th place when Q1 was halted and at risk of being one of five drivers eliminated.
The safety car came out to test the track before the session, followed soon after by a sweeper truck removing excess water. After one more lap from the safety car, the session restarted with seven minutes left in Q1.
Leclerc and Raikkonen, the winner of the inaugural race here in 2005, almost collided.
Just three minutes later, the red flag came out after Romain Grosjean went backwards into some gravel.
When it started again, Leclerc had only 3:30 left to reach Q2. He held his nerve and qualified comfortably while Verstappen zoomed up from 15th to lead Q1 with brilliant driving.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was 14th best and just squeezed into Q2, which was held up for a few minutes while a crane removed Nicholas Latifi’s Williams from the side of the track.
Vettel and Leclerc were eliminated, along with the McLarens of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris.
Earlier, Verstappen was again fastest in a cold and damp final practice.
Verstappen, who was fastest in both sessions on Friday, was quicker than Leclerc and Albon. Meanwhile, Hamilton did not set a lap time, and Bottas was eighth in treacherous conditions.
“Going into the wet today made it even harder,” Hamilton said. “I like being in the wet but here the tires aren’t working … 10 times worse in terms of grip than anywhere else.”
While it will be tough for Hamilton to clinch a record-extending 94th win on Sunday, he needs to finish only ahead of Bottas to clinch his seventh F1 title and equal Michael Schumacher’s record.