Russian Grand Prix: Charles Leclerc to start on pole after leading qualifying

Charles Leclerc of Ferrari
Charles Leclerc of Ferrari

Lewis Hamilton has warned Charles Leclerc that he will be hot on his heels in the 200mph charge to the opening corner at Sunday's Russian Grand Prix.

The impressive Leclerc became the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to secure four consecutive pole positions by obliterating the field in qualifying.

Leclerc was just three when Schumacher achieved the feat 18 years ago. Here at the Sochi Autodrome, Ferrari's new star finished four tenths clear of anyone else as he continues to dazzle in his opening campaign for the famous Prancing Horse.

This marked Leclerc's sixth pole - no driver has sealed more this season - and the 10th round in succession that he has out-qualified his four-time world championship-winning team-mate Sebastian Vettel. The German will start third.

Hamilton proved man still triumphs over machine by splitting the Ferrari drivers in his inferior Mercedes. He was six tenths faster than team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who finished fifth. The Finn will start one place higher following Max Verstappen's five-place grid penalty for changes to his engine.

Hamilton's Mercedes team have won all five races staged on the Black Sea, but Hamilton will start Sunday's race as the underdog to continue that streak given Ferrari's lightning speed in a straight line and Leclerc's imperious form.

Hamilton knows that his best chance might arrive when the lights go out before the 900-metre first-lap sprint. The drivers will accelerate through the opening kink before braking from 200mph for the right-handed second bend.

"It is a long way down to Turn 2 but I am going to try and tow the life out of Charles," said Hamilton.

"These guys have some crazy speeds on the straights. They go to another level. It was said we had a party-engine mode, but Ferrari have something else beyond that; jet mode.

"There were no mistakes on my lap so I really felt like I got everything and more from the car to split the Ferraris once again which is not an easy task.

"I am sure we will have a good battle one way or the other. I am hoping tomorrow that we can really give them a good fight."

Hamilton will have to contend not only with being the meat in a Ferrari sandwich, but starting Sunday's race on the more durable medium tyre compound.

Both Ferrari cars will be on the speedier soft rubber which could provide them with more traction off the start-line. Mercedes hope that Hamilton might be able to run longer in his opening stint, and provide their Ferrari rivals with a strategy headache.

"I just want to be on something different," added Hamilton. "We have not beaten Ferrari for a while so I will tell you whether it worked at the end tomorrow."

Ferrari flattered to deceive in the opening half of the campaign but they have emerged from the summer break as an unstoppable force. A win here on Sunday would be their fourth in a row.

Ferrari's shaky early form means Leclerc, despite winning two of the last three races, heads into Sunday's race 96 points behind Hamilton with 156 left on the table. Bottas is Hamilton's closest challenger, 65 points adrift, but the Finn provides no real danger to his team-mate's bid for a sixth world title.

"The car felt amazing and it feels great to be back on pole," said Leclerc. "It feels very, very special [to emulate Schumacher's record] but I don't want to think about stats for now. I just want to focus on the job."

British teenager Lando Norris finished eighth, but he will be promoted one spot after Verstappen's punishment. The London-born Thai Alex Albon will be at the back after he crashed out of qualifying in his Red Bull.

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