Cool-hand Lewis shoots to Singapore pole
McLaren's Lewis Hamilton shrugged off intense speculation about his future on Saturday at the Singapore Grand Prix as he powered to his fifth pole position of the season to strengthen his world title bid.
The Briton settled a thrilling session with a lightning lap of 1min 46.362sec early in Q3, proving too fast for the other drivers. Hamilton, champion in 2008, was nearly half-a-second quicker than Pastor Maldonado of Williams.
Red Bull's defending world champion Sebastian Vettel, despite leading all three practice sessions before Sunday's steamy Asian night race, will be on the second row of the grid alongside McLaren's Jenson Button.
Championship leader Fernando Alonso settled for fifth, Force India's Paul di Resta was sixth, Mark Webber was seventh and Romain Grosjean of Lotus, back from a one-race ban over a crash in Belgium, survived some hairy moments to claim eighth.
Mercedes' Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg opted to preserve their tyres for the race and spent most of Q3 in the garage, settling for ninth and 10th places respectively.
Hamilton has been in the eye of a media storm about his future after admitting he wasn't sure which team he'll drive for next season. After winning pole position, he was asked why he appeared downbeat.
At a team media session earlier on Saturday, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had deflected a question about the situation and Hamilton appeared subdued.
Both men shifted in their chairs when Button referred to Hamilton, seated one metre (three feet) away, as "my teammate". Relations are reportedly cool between the two.
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But after night fell, Hamilton underlined his ability to ignore distractions by claiming his third pole position in four races. Two wins out of the last three have put him second in the standings, 37 points behind Ferrari's Alonso.
Afterwards, he confined his comments to the job in hand on the tight, demanding street layout.
"It's an incredibly tough circuit for tyre degradation," Hamilton said. "I think everyone's going to struggle with that. We just want to get away well at the start (on Sunday) and continue with the strategy we've planned."
Maldonado, who has disappeared from the points race since winning in Valencia, was delighted with his surprise second position. But Vettel, supreme in all three practice sessions, was baffled by his slow pace in qualifying.
"I'm a little disappointed. Especially in Q3, I don't know why we couldn't take the step," said the German, who is still in the running for a third straight title.
"Nevertheless third is a good position to start from. It's a long race and a lot of things can happen... but surely, if you don't take the last step in qualifying it's a shame."
Grosjean was quickest in Q1 ahead of di Resta, former world champion Kimi Räikkönen, Vettel and Hamilton, who seemed untroubled by a bumpy run over the chicane curbs.
Bruno Senna also escaped serious damage when he clipped a barrier after running wide to overtake a slower car. But the Williams driver lasted just a few minutes of Q2 before a similar mistake loosened a rear wheel and put him out.
Grosjean had a close call when he knocked a barrier early in Q2, but re-emerged to continue the session after a check by his pit mechanics.
Seven-time world champion Schumacher escaped elimination in his last lap of the session to time ninth quickest. Hamilton led Q2 ahead of Vettel, Webber, Grosjean and Alonso, with Räikkönen surprisingly missing Q3.
In the top-10 shoot-out, Hamilton came out flying to take the early lead and his time was never challenged. Grosjean flirted with another bump and Hamilton also veered dangerously close to the barriers in the closing seconds.
"That means I'm using all the road," Hamilton said. "I didn't mean to and I didn't feel it – hopefully it hasn't caused any damage."
Marussia's French driver Charles Pic was handed a 20-second penalty for overtaking under a red flag during Saturday's free practice. And Red Bull's Webber was reprimanded for impeding Marussia driver Timo Glock in Q1.
Separately, organisers also announced a five-year extension guaranteeing the popular race until 2017, after lengthy contract negotiations.
1. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) McLaren 1:46.362
2. Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela) Williams - Renault 1:46.804
3. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) RedBull - Renault 1:46.905
4. Jenson Button (Britain) McLaren 1:46.939
5. Fernando Alonso (Spain) Ferrari 1:47.216
6. Paul Di Resta (Britain) Force India - Mercedes 1:47.241
7. Mark Webber (Australia) RedBull - Renault 1:47.475
8. Romain Grosjean (France) Lotus - Renault 1:47.788
9. Michael Schumacher (Germany) Mercedes
10. Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes
11. Nico Huelkenberg (Germany) Force India - Mercedes 1:47.975
12. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Lotus - Renault 1:48.261
13. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Ferrari 1:48.344
14. Sergio Perez (Mexico) Sauber - Ferrari 1:48.505
15. Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Toro Rosso - Ferrari 1:48.774
16. Jean-Eric Vergne (France) Toro Rosso - Ferrari 1:48.849
17. Bruno Senna (Brazil) Williams - Renault
18. Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber - Ferrari 1:49.933
19. Vitaly Petrov (Russia) Caterham - Renault 1:50.846
20. Heikki Kovalainen (Finland) Caterham - Renault 1:51.137
21. Timo Glock (Germany) Marussia - Cosworth 1:51.370
22. Charles Pic (France) Marussia - Cosworth 1:51.762
23. Narain Karthikeyan (India) HRT - Cosworth 1:52.372
24. Pedro de la Rosa (Spain) HRT - Cosworth 1:53.355