BARCELONA (AFP) - Lewis Hamilton rediscovered his mojo and his smile on Saturday when he roared to pole position for Sunday's Spanish Grand Prix ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
The defending world champion, who is without a victory in seven races since clinching his third title in Texas last October, grabbed the prime starting spot with a thrilling demonstration of stunning speed in warm sunshine at the Circuit de Catalunya.
It was his third pole this year, his second in Spain and the 52nd of his career, a statistic that meant less to him than the knowledge that he had overcome a variety of setbacks to regain his once-routine supremacy over a single lap.
"I am very, very happy with that and with those laps," said Hamilton.
"Nico has been really strong here all weekend so, bit by bit, I have been trying to put the pace together.
"I really want to thank the guys back at the factory who have been working so hard to try and rectify the problems that we've had over the last few weeks."
He insisted it was "three out of three" for him after he was unable to compete in final qualifying for the Chinese and Russian Grands Prix due to technical problems.
"This is now three out of three for me so, obviously, I am delighted. We had a problem on the car yesterday and this is a great response."
For Hamilton, who has taken pole each time he has had a trouble-free day, it may prove to be a significant return to form and good fortune after a run of four races blighted by incidents and engine failures that have seen some critics question his motivation and others suggest he was considering taking a sabbatical next year.
To that, he had an immediate riposte. "What? Take a year off? No way! Whoever wrote that must be smoking something - pretty good stuff."
In that time, Rosberg has reeled off four wins - extending his sequence to seven in all - to take charge of the title race with a 43-point lead.
But, as both men know, the Spanish race has been won 18 times out of 25 from pole position since 1991, a fact that may give the 31-year-old Briton a clear opportunity to end Rosberg's run of triumphs and rekindle his own defence of the drivers' title.
"I'm disappointed, but Lewis was just quicker today and that's it," said Rosberg.
"Fortunately, it's the race that counts so I'll try to take my chances at the start. Strategy-wise, it's not going to be an easy race."
Hamilton ended up with a best lap in one minute, 22 seconds, 0.28 seconds ahead of Rosberg's fastest on a day when teenager Max Verstappen demonstrated why he was promoted, so unexpectedly, by Red Bull, from Toro Rosso.
The 18-year-old Dutchman was second-fastest at one time and his speed inspired Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who responded by qualifying third ahead of him on the grid.
This meant the two Red Bulls separated Mercedes from their main rivals Ferrari, who were pushed back to fifth and sixth, Finn Kimi Raikkonen edging ahead of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in the final seconds.
"I am really happy to be in front of both Ferraris and Max, as well," said Ricciardo. "For us, that's pretty awesome. I knew I had the pace."
Finn Valtteri Bottas was seventh for Williams - who had lost Brazilian Felipe Massa in Q1 - ahead of Spaniard Carlos Sainz in the leading Toro Rosso, Mexican Sergio Perez of Force India and two-time champion Fernando Alonso of McLaren Honda.
On a circuit that puts great emphasis on the aerodynamic efficiency of a car and which "eats tyres", according to Hamilton, the weather conditions may play a part in the outcome of Sunday's contest.
Rain has been forecast, but the Englishman will be determined to claim his first victory in seven months.