Lewis Hamilton delivered a lap he said bordered on perfection to claim the 99th pole position of his stunning career for Sunday’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
Few had backed the seven-time world champion to finish at the summit of the time charts at Imola on Saturday, with Max Verstappen, in his speedier Red Bull, expected to land his second pole in as many rounds of the new Formula One campaign.
But Hamilton produced a vintage qualifying display to beat Red Bull driver Sergio Perez by just 0.035 seconds, with Verstappen disappointed to finish third fastest, albeit within a tenth of the Briton.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was only eighth in the other black machine, almost half-a-second adrift.
“I am just amazed at how close it is, and how exciting that is, because it really adds to the fire and the adrenalin rush,” said Hamilton.
“I didn’t know whether Max or Sergio had improved on that last lap for quite some time, so I was definitely nervous.
“But I knew going into qualifying it was going to take something special and the most perfect lap I could do, and a little bit more, in order to beat the Red Bulls because they have been so fast all weekend.
“I didn’t know if I could do it. But I started a tenth up out of turns one and two and I knew I was on to a good lap. Nobody within the team expected us to be on pole but that is what I was gunning for.”
Hamilton got the business done with his first of two laps in Q3. He failed to improve on his second run, as did Verstappen.
The Dutchman, who fluffed his lines in Bahrain last month when he performed an illegal overtake on Hamilton for the win, made another mistake on Saturday, running wide at the third bend.
Had Verstappen kept his car on the asphalt, he would probably have started Sunday’s race ahead of his championship rival.
Instead, he will be two grid spots back at a track where overtaking is among the hardest of any races on the calendar.
Hamilton added: “It is going to be close throughout the season and it is going to take laps like that and us as a team performing as close to perfection as possible and not leaving any stone unturned.
“I know that is the idea going into most weekends but we cannot afford any slip-ups and so far we have been firing on all cylinders.
“We are all operating at such a high level and there are milliseconds between us all.
“We could all go back and look at our data and say we could go faster, but it is what you do in that one moment that counts.”
Verstappen’s star quality is undisputed but this is the first of his seven campaigns in which he has had to deal with the strain of being considered as a serious title contender.
The Dutchman, 23, said: “It was a scrappy lap and I have not had one of those in a long time so I just need to understand why that happened.
“We are not robots and I cannot programme myself like that. Sometimes you just make a mistake.”
One sour note for Hamilton is that Bottas’ abject display leaves him exposed to both Red Bulls, with Perez and Verstappen starting the race on opposing tyre strategies.
The threat of rain could also have an impact on Sunday’s race.
Behind the top three, Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc finished fourth while Lando Norris will be disappointed to start seventh.
The young Briton had briefly put his McLaren on the front row but his time was deleted for exceeding track limits.