On a weekend where things were shaping up for a three-team fight for pole position, such a thrilling prospect was snatched away as Ferrari saw its 2019 plight plummet to a new low.

The Italian team’s clean sweep of practice at Hockenheim gave real hope to the prospect of Mercedes’ domination stalling much as it did in Austria. Even after a dramatic change in the weather overnight after rain had cleared the heatwave, making for a cooler day that should have played to the strengths of the Mercedes W10, Charles Leclerc was still the man to beat in final practice, with Red Bull taking the closest fight to Ferrari through Max Verstappen.

And yet once again, it was Mercedes left celebrating pole position, taken by Lewis Hamilton in fairly comfortable fashion with not a single red car to worry about.

Reliability has been a sticking point for Ferrari on occasion this season, most recently seen in Austria when an air pressure engine issue sidelined Sebastian Vettel from Q3 and left him P9 on the grid. It proved costly come the race when Leclerc was left without any support at the front of the pack, giving Verstappen the chance to snatch a victory that may not have been possible against two Ferraris on the front row.

So there was a flurry of déjà vu early in Q1 when Vettel reported a loss of power on his Ferrari SF90 car. He was instructed to keep his car in a high gear but at low revs, and to return to the pits slowly, where the mechanics quickly set to work to try and resolve the issue with nine minutes to spare in the session. Six minutes later, the call had been made: Vettel jumped out of his car, resigned to starting last on Sunday. Game over.

Ferrari would have still fancied its chances for pole, even with just one bullet left in the gun. Leclerc had been the faster driver from FP2 onwards, and looked strong through the opening two stages of qualifying – only for a fuel system issue to emerge on his car, unrelated to Vettel’s strife. Taking no part in Q3, Leclerc was left P10 for the grid. Game over – for real this time.

Both drivers were understandable downbeat after qualifying. Vettel said he felt “very bitter” about the issue, the setback made all the more excruciating by coming on his home grand prix weekend, where he appeared to have a shot at finally ending his Hockenheim win drought. Leclerc called it a “shame”, but took some heart from his pace through the weekend that should see him progress from the midfield – even if his victory hopes look slim.

“The confidence and the pace I have got, definitely,” he said. “Tomorrow I am going with a positive mindset, I will be very aggressive in the first part to try and overtake as many cars as we can and then we’ll see where we end up.”

It was a perfect storm for Mercedes to capitalise and snatch a pole position that looked far from certain heading into qualifying. Despite feeling ill enough for Mercedes to make preparations for Esteban Ocon to take his place should he pull out, Hamilton swept to his 87th career pole by three-tenths of a second – a decent margin around such a short lap.

“It was a relatively straightforward session, very clean,” Hamilton said. “The team did a great job in terms of timings and getting us out at the right times. We saw both Ferraris drop out - obviously made it a little bit different in terms of the battle that we had at the end.

“Nevertheless, I think I had pretty good pace and it would have been close between myself and Leclerc. They’ve been quick all weekend.”

The loss of the Ferraris may have eased some of the pressure on Hamilton, but he was still made to work for pole. Verstappen put in another impressive display for Red Bull to snatch P2 on the grid, splitting the Mercedes, and had been on course to run Hamilton very close on his final lap. Hamilton failed to improve with his last Q3 effort, meaning that without an error at Turn 8 that saw him run slightly wide, Verstappen could have been even nearer at the front. 

And even with the Ferraris falling away, at no point did Hamilton rest easy: “It makes no difference. You’re still focused on trying to do the best job you can.

“It’s difficult when you do all the practices and qualifying and something happens as soon as you get out. That’s definitely a horrible feeling.  We’ve all been there, we’ve had that kind of thing.”

Indeed, a feeling Hamilton knew all too well at Hockenheim 12 months ago when his title hopes looked like they hung by a thread after his qualifying issue left him P14 on the grid.

Can Ferrari take a crumb of comfort from Hamilton’s fightback last year? Perhaps – only this time, the title fight is already well over, with today’s low simply acting as the latest, loudest death knell.



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