Lewis Hamilton conceded Valtteri Bottas was “miles ahead” of him after Friday practice, but less than 24 hours later it was he who claimed pole position for Formula 1’s Tuscan Grand Prix.

Heading into qualifying on F1’s first competitive visit to Mugello on a grand prix race weekend, Hamilton had trailed his Mercedes teammate in all three practice sessions.

The six-times world champion admitted at the end of running on Friday that he had more time to find after struggling to get to grips with the Tuscany track on what is his first time driving at the spectacular and super-fast Mugello circuit.

Hamilton started the weekend over half a second off the pace and was two-tenths slower than Bottas by the close of play on Friday, however the deficit was notably smaller on Saturday morning, with Hamilton just 0.089s adrift in final practice. 

But Hamilton edged ahead of Bottas for the first time by topping Q2 before he ultimately beat the Finn to pole position by just 0.059s as Mercedes locked out the front-row of the grid once again.

After appearing to look on the back-foot heading into qualifying, Hamilton, as he so often does, delivered when it mattered most to claim the 95th pole of his career.

Hamilton said he felt “the pressure was higher than ever” to find time around Mugello and overturn his deficit to Bottas.

“In my past I always felt that one of my strengths is learning a circuit quite quickly,” Hamilton said.

“And for this one we went on the simulator which I never do and I don’t feel like I benefitted particularly. Getting here was a lot of work… The pressure was incredibly high.

“I’m going out there doing laps, I was struggling to get to the limit, find the limit in certain sectors and Valtteri was miles ahead really in some of those areas.

“So of course, the pressure was higher than ever because if I hadn’t done the work then I wouldn’t have got the result that we got at the end.”

The 'science' behind Hamilton's turnaround

Hamilton was only 0.013s up on Bottas in the second session but managed to extend his advantage out during the first runs of Q3.

He failed to improve on the second lap but it did not matter in the end as Bottas’ was left to rue yellow flags which hampered his final flying effort when Esteban Ocon spun his Renault into the Turn 5 gravel.

The Briton was able to find his most noticeable gains in sector one and two, the parts of the circuit he was struggling the most at compared to Bottas throughout practice.

This was possible in part thanks to his dedication to understand exactly where he was losing time to Bottas and improve on those areas, coupled alongside making a “big” set-up change that paid off in qualifying.

After taking his seventh pole in nine races, Hamilton explained the “incredible amount of detail that you have to go into” with the engineers in order to extract more performance around a circuit.

“Last night [I was] dissecting every single corner basically, and sector, really trying to fine-tune that set-up,” he said.

“As a racing driver there’s a real fine line between knowing whether you’ve got understeer or oversteer, whether you’re on the limit or not in certain places.

“You can be on the limit through one corner but not through the rest of the corners, for example. It could be the first one and then not the second one but the third one you are.

“So really understanding whether you’ve got the balance right within yourself and then knowing what to request for when you do move towards the limit, what you need, you have to pre-empt what the car’s going to do. There’s a real science to it.

“That’s why I have so much respect for all these drivers because it’s not only the ability to drive but to understand those things and to be engineers, at the end of the day. We have to work with these geniuses that balance numbers like nobody else. But we need to be able to do that on the track.”

Leclerc stars again in Ferrari’s 1000th GP

Behind the dominant Mercedes duo, Red Bull locked out the second row of the grid for the first time this season as Alex Albon scored his best qualifying result of the year in fourth, half a second down on teammate Max Verstappen.

But it was Charles Leclerc who was arguably the standout performer of the day with a sublime lap to claim fifth on the grid for Ferrari ahead of the Scuderia’s 1000th world championship race.

Ferrari arrived at the Mugello circuit it owns hoping for a better performance to bounce back from two races without points following its struggles at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.

Leclerc had said coming into the weekend that he believed Ferrari would be in a stronger position to fight for a spot in the top 10 but fifth exceeded both his and the team’s expectations.

The Monegasque benefitted from the yellow flag triggered by Ocon as he had already passed the scene of the accident and was able to improve as a result, but he still delivered the goods.

"I'm very happy, very happy with the lap overall," Leclerc said. "I put everything together and P5 was definitely above any of our expectations.

“Overall very happy with the car. With the balance, we did quite a good job this weekend compared to Monza, where we have been struggling massively. Today was one of the strong parts of the car.

“There is a good opportunity,” he added when discussing Ferrari’s chances of a return to the points on Sunday.

“But on the other hand, if we look at the race pace of the other teams on Friday, there are quite a lot of cars that are stronger than us on Friday.

"It's going to be difficult to keep them behind, but that's my job in the car and I will give everything."

While Leclerc recorded his best qualifying performance since taking an equally brilliant fourth at the British Grand Prix, his Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel’s form slump showed little sign of ending as he wound up 0.534s slower than Leclerc.

The four-time world champion, who is leaving Ferrari to join the renamed Aston Martin squad for 2021, was knocked out in Q2 and could only qualify 14th on the grid, behind his former teammate Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo.

Vettel even admitted he was “lucky” to get through to Q1 after making a mistake on his final lap on what was another difficult day for the German.

 

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