On his knees like an altar boy at prayer, Lewis Hamilton paid homage to the Mercedes he had just driven to pole position for the British Grand Prix.
This old airfield has never looked finer than under the face of yesterday’s boiling sun, and he was right to thank his glistening silver machinery for allowing him to create the advantage he will carry into today’s race.
But the real hero of the qualifying hour was Hamilton himself. The car writhed under his brutal handling. He was right on the line. The threat of the Ferraris was all around him on the timing sheets. The red cars probably held a slight edge in natural speed. Indeed, after the penultimate flying laps, Sebastian Vettel had been 0.057sec ahead of Hamilton.
It would take a super-human effort from the Briton to prevail over Vettel across 3.66 miles of the track’s bumps. But that is what Hamilton did, producing a lap that he has rarely equalled for virtuosity.
Vettel was eclipsed by 0.044sec with Kimi Raikkonen third, 0.098sec off and to underline Hamilton’s success in rising beyond the car’s own generous limits, his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was 0.325sec behind him.
‘Insane,’ was Hamilton’s verdict on the demands presented by the super-fast 2018 cars on one of the world’s fastest race tracks.
Given his performance, it was no surprise to see Hamilton jump out of his car in the style of Frankie Dettori after a Royal Ascot winner, and pump the air with double-fisted delight. His hands shook. It was his 76th career pole and 50th for Mercedes.
Now Hamilton has the chance to make more history today by moving ahead of Jim Clark and Alain Prost as the only six-time winner of the British Grand Prix.
He is the firm favourite to do so 10 years after one of the defining drives of his life. In driving rain, he unforgettably won at Silverstone by more than a minute, lapping all but Nick Heidfeld and Rubens Barrichello in second and third places.
Yesterday’s pole was Hamilton’s fourth successive here — and record sixth in all. The records are tumbling at his right foot.
‘I knew we were up against it, and to pull it together was the hardest thing I can remember,’ he said.
‘It felt like one of the most pressurised laps I have ever had. The adrenaline was way above the limit that I have ever experienced.
‘It took everything from me, but the fans were there and I could see them lifting me on. I really wanted to do it for them and to give a boost to the England [football] team.
‘Start the wave, and let them continue it.’
All around Silverstone’s vast campus, on big screens, people’s attention was turning to the World Cup, with the quarter-final starting just before qualifying ended.
A crowd of 101,000 turned their affections from the track to the grass of Russia, even petrol-heads twitching from the Formula Two race to keep a watching brief on England’s footballers.
‘Ferrari have picked up a lot of pace this weekend but we are in the best position we can be,’ said Hamilton. ‘I am excited for a close race.
‘It is such a technical circuit and it is about car placement. This has been a strong circuit for me, and my job is to make the difference. I didn’t leave anything on the table today.’
Poor Vettel was a little downcast afterwards — he had a sharp pain in the neck, literally. He had felt it in the third practice session and received physio treatment to get him ready for qualifying. Doping rules did not allow him to take an injection. He just wore strapping and got on with it.
The German, who leads Hamilton by a single point in the world drivers’ championship standings, said he was looking for a good night’s sleep to be in tip-top shape for today.
One factor that may play a role on the outcome is the sweltering heat forecast for the race and its effect on the durability of the tyres. Blistering? Explosions? Is there drama ahead?
At the back of the grid came embarrassment for Williams, a team whose first victory of 114 came in this race in 1979. Alan Jones was that winning driver. Their current pairing of Canadian Lance Stroll, 19, and the Russian Sergey Sirotkin, 22, are not fit to lace the great Australian’s boots.
Watching here was Sir Frank Williams, founder and guiding spirit of the team. He is a rare visitor to the paddock these days and his staff played the theme tune from Top Gun, his favourite film, in the old boy’s honour to welcome him to the garage. He smiled widely at the thoughtful gesture.
But there was little else to cheer him. Stroll spun off at 200mph before Sirotkin also careered into the gravel. They qualified last and second last. Sir Frank’s daughter, Claire, put both hands to her mouth to hide her open-mouthed despair.
McLaren, revamping after last week’s exit of Eric Boullier as racing director, were disappointed with Stoffel Vandoorne’s 17th place, a second off Fernando Alonso in the other car.
The Belgian Vandoorne is losing 10-0 this season in qualifying to his team-mate, and such a chasm only makes it more likely that Lando Norris, the team’s 18-year-old Brit who is challenging for the Formula Two title against another promising Englishman George Russell, 20, will be in Vandoorne’s seat next year.