Lewis Hamilton relieved after just beating Sebastian Vettel to pole for Malaysia GP
Stage set for a head-to-head contest between improving Red Bull and frontrunning Mercedes in Sunday's grand prix
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 29/03/14 4:01pm
Sunday morning's Malaysia GP is set to stage a mouthwatering contest between the World Championship favourite and reigning World Champion after Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel qualified on the front row.
In a riveting duel on a rain-soaked Sepang circuit, Mercedes driver Hamilton claimed the 33rd pole position of his F1 career by the narrowest of margins after edging out his Red Bull rival by less than a tenth of a second. While the result confirmed that Mercedes, who have topped every session so far this weekend, remain the team to beat in F1, Red Bull's renaissance also underlined the massive gains the World Champions have made since their winter misery.
On a personal level, Saturday's outcome leaves the stage perfectly set for a compelling head-to-head battle on race day between Vettel and Hamilton after both drivers were forced to retire from the curtain-raising Australian GP with less than five laps on the clock. Two weeks behind schedule, their season starts now.
"It's always difficult when it rains but this year it is even more difficult with all the extra torque we have, but it was great fun," Hamilton reflected. "At the end, I couldn't see a thing - it was like driving through the clouds.
"I couldn't do my last lap - I just couldn't see behind [Nico] Hulkenberg. I couldn't see where the track went and didn't know where the corners were or where to brake. And at the start of the lap I couldn't see where Fernando [Alonso] was behind me so it was impossible to try and get a gap, so I had to bail out.
"I'm just grateful the lap I did before was good enough. It was definitely a little bit too close [to Red Bull] but I'm happy to be here."
Hamilton also expressed pride that the 33rd pole of his career has taken him clear of Nigel Mansell's tally for an Englishman to equal Jim Clark's British record.
"It's a real privilege to be mentioned among really the greatest drivers that we've had in Britain," he added. "To be among the top British drivers is a real privilege - I'm so grateful - and I hope that I can continue to represent the country and make it proud."
While Red Bull's RB10 still looks to be lagging behind the Mercedes W05, particularly in race trim, the forecast showers for race day offers Vettel a hitherto-unlikely route to victory barely a month after Red Bull's fragile new car was all-but written off.
"Mercedes, as a team, have the best package. They're the favourites at the moment, but after that it is fairly close between the other Mercedes-powered teams, Ferrari and ourselves," said Vettel. "But I am very happy with where we are after a very difficult winter. It was very tough, but we've worked very hard and it has seemed to pay off.
"We always have a chance to beat everyone, that's why we are here. Mercedes have the most competitive package and it will be difficult to beat them but it's not impossible. Yesterday was good, today was very good and I'm keen to find out where we stand because I've not yet done a race since Brazil in November."
Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg will start third, the position from which he claimed the win in Melbourne, and says Red Bull's sudden recovery isn't unexpected.
"Red Bull are still the reference point in this sport, they are still the best and they were always going to come back strong. But we learnt a lot on Friday and if it is dry then we know exactly what to do - but if it's wet then it's a bit more complicated. It will be an exciting race," Rosberg predicted.
Sunday's race starts at 9am with coverage underway at 8am on Sky Sports F1.
Rosberg had to queue behind Hamilton when both cars pitted at the same time for new tyres during Q3