SINGAPORE — Locked in an intense fight for the Formula One championship, and preparing for his 200th career start, Nico Rosberg pulled out a stunning lap to snatch pole position for the Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday.
Rosberg, who trails championship leader and Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton by two points, put himself in the best possible position for a third consecutive race victory by qualifying more than half a second faster than Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in second.
“For my 200th appearance, definitely one of my top three laps ever,” Rosberg said. “It wasn’t clear in qualifying how we would stack up against Red Bull so I really had to give it everything and pull it out of the bag, which is cool.”
Hamilton, who struggled relative to his teammate throughout practice at the Marina Bay street circuit, qualified third, seven-tenths of a second off Rosberg’s time.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen qualified fourth.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was fifth, and teammate Sebastian Vettel will start last in Sunday’s race after his car had an anti-roll bar failure in the Q1 session.
“I was a bit annoyed because first we decided to go for another lap but it wasn’t really any quicker,” said defending champion Vettel, a four-time winner in Singapore. “Then we decided to pit to try and fix it but there was no time to do it.”
Though Rosberg’s time was stunning, Red Bull retained confidence about its prospects of a race victory. Both Ricciardo and Verstappen will start the race on harder tires than Mercedes, so their first stint before pitting should be longer. That will allow them greater flexibility of strategy at a venue that has had safety car periods in all of its previous races.
“We are a bit surprised we are the only ones (on that tire strategy),” Ricciardo said. “We feel it’s a good thing but let’s see if it makes a difference tomorrow.
“We have created a good opportunity by starting on the front row, and our race pace has been good (in practice). Track position and safety cars can determine a lot here.”
Hamilton struggled in practice, with several instances of missed braking points, tire lock-ups, and trips down escape roads.
“It’s not been my weekend so far,” Hamilton said. “I haven’t been able to string them (laps) together.
“I’ve been on the back foot all year long, so it’s really no different tomorrow, and I’ll try to fight my way through.”
Verstappen was also unhappy with his rhythm during qualifying, complaining that he was unable to get sufficient heat in his tires despite the tropical conditions and high track temperatures. He was in better spirits during the final practice as he laughed over the team radio about almost hitting a large monitor lizard that scuttled across the circuit.
Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr. qualified sixth — equaling his season best — followed by teammate Daniil Kvyat in seventh.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg qualified eighth and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso ninth. Force India’s Sergio Perez initially qualified 10th but received an eight-place grid penalty for setting his best time in the Q2 session while double-yellow caution flags were being waved following a crash into the barriers by Haas driver Sebastian Grosjean.
Rosberg’s 29th career pole took him level with the great Juan Manuel Fangio on the all-time list, and provided a fillip for his confidence on a track where he has never shown his best. This was his first pole in Singapore, where his best finish was second back in 2008, when he was with Williams.
He paid credit to his team for being able to diagnose and overcome the problems that saw the team perform relatively poorly in qualifying here last year.
“We really came away and learned what went wrong last year,” Rosberg said. “We were nowhere in qualifying so it really shows the quality of the team to be able to turn something like that around and be so successful.”