Prior to Saturday’s session, you had to go all the way back to 2014 for the last time Lewis Hamilton was beaten in qualifying for the British Grand Prix.

Silverstone has been a very happy hunting ground for Lewis Hamilton over the years as the site for a record six pole positions, five of which have come in the last seven years. And with Mercedes in the kind of form it has been this year, he entered qualifying as the heavy favourite to make it seven – and break the record he currently shares with Ayrton Senna for the most home pole positions.

But it wasn’t to be. For the first time in two months, Valtteri Bottas was able to clinch top spot on Saturday, edging out Hamilton by just six-thousandths of a second in one of the more curious qualifying sessions of the year as a number of factors combined to make mistakes easy to come by.

We got a taste of things to come through practice as a number of drivers had spins and off-track moments, struggling to find grip on the newly-resurfaced Silverstone circuit. The track had been given a fresh coat of tarmac following the drainage issues that caused the MotoGP race to be cancelled, leaving it very green. Add in some windy and cold conditions and the hardest possible set of compounds, and the big margins all of a sudden became harder to find.

Track evolution was surprisingly low throughout qualifying, with Bottas only finding six-tenths of a second between his fastest time in Q1 (1m25.750s) and the pole lap (1m25.093s); Hamilton and Leclerc managed to gain only around 0.4 seconds across their sessions. Both drivers made mistakes on their first runs – Hamilton at Brooklands, Leclerc at the final corner – to give Bottas provisional pole with a lap that, even if he was unable to better, was still good enough for top spot come the end of the session.

“I knew the first lap was good, but it was not perfect,” Bottas said. “I should have improved on the second lap but I didn’t get the lap together, especially in the first part. But I’m glad it was enough. It’s not easy to put a lap together, it’s very easy to make mistakes and I think everyone was struggling a bit.

“There was not much between me and Lewis in the end, but going into the second run, it was clear there were some places where I had a margin to improve, so I wouldn’t say it was a perfect lap.

“I doubt anyone could do a perfect lap today. It was not easy out there. The track is super sensitive to tiny mistakes.”

Putting together a clean lap was the key to succeeding in qualifying on Saturday, meaning both Ferrari and Red Bull could get within spitting distance of Mercedes up front. Charles Leclerc had been talking down Ferrari’s chances heading into the weekend, but was just 0.079 seconds shy of pole in the end after a lap he felt would have been hard to better.

“I think we are very happy with the performance, to be very close to Mercedes,” Leclerc said. “We did not expect it. We thought we would be struggling more this weekend.

“We have been struggling since FP1 with the front end of the car, still in qualifying but a little bit less. Of course we hope for a higher position, but third I think was quite good today.”

Even Max Verstappen felt he could have been in with a shout of pole had it not been for a bout of turbo lag on his final lap – something thought unlikely for Honda power on a track like Silverstone where engine grunt is so crucial.

“I had an issue with not the power I wanted to, so it didn’t pick up the throttle like I wanted, so we definitely lost a bit of lap time with that. But still to be that close to pole is good,” Verstappen said, having fallen just two-tenths shy of Bottas’s time.

With little margin for error, the door was also opened for others to slip up – most notably Sebastian Vettel, who was largely anonymous through qualifying as he finished a lowly sixth behind Pierre Gasly. His gain across all three stages on Saturday was just 0.111 seconds.

“I didn’t really have a great feeling this afternoon and part of it, around here, you need a bit of it to throw the car from one side to the other,” Vettel said in a nod to Ferrari’s front-end struggles seen through much of the season so far. Nevertheless, it stood as a 0.6-second gap to Leclerc, and third straight qualifying defeat to his teammate.

Qualifying at Silverstone was a day for the opportunist – and Sunday’s race could end up being something similar. All of the signs suggest a one-stop race that has been so straightforward pretty much everywhere this year won’t be doable, opening up a number of strategy options. Both Mercedes cars will start on Mediums, meaning that while the Ferraris should have a pace advantage on Softs early on, they will need to come in much earlier.

And then, of course, comes the weather. How might some traditional Silverstone showers shake things up?

“I’m down for some good, old English weather tomorrow,” Hamilton said with a smirk. “When it is sunny, hail, rain, sun, snow - the whole mixture.”

Saturday may have belonged to Bottas, but his teammate is ready to try and make this another memorable homecoming tomorrow no matter what is thrown at him.

 

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