You can never count Sebastian Vettel, four times a winner here, out at the Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix.
His great rival Lewis Hamilton learnt that the hard way yesterday evening, when he admitted that he was caught off-guard by the brilliance of the Ferrari driver at the Marina Bay Street Circuit.
Having never been fastest through practice and the first two sessions of qualifying, Vettel produced two scintillating laps in the third (Q3) to take pole position in a new track record of 1min 39.491sec.
Hamilton, who qualified only in fifth position (1:40.126) on his Mercedes, lamented: "We knew today would be tough but I didn't anticipate Ferrari would be as strong as they were.
"We remain hopeful. I got everything I could out of the car. I gave it everything. I threw the sink at it and squeezed every bit of it."
The Briton, on 238 points, is only three points ahead of Vettel in the drivers' standings, and tonight's race is a great chance for the German to retake the lead from the Mercedes man, with overtaking chances hard to come by on the tight and winding track.
Hamilton's last win in Singapore was three years ago, and he admits he faces a challenge to limit the damage this time round, given how the top three finished in grid order in the last two editions.
"It's usually a long, long train," said the Briton, describing how the race typically runs as a procession.
"The start is an opportunity, strategy is an opportunity, safety cars... we'll have to play the long game. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Red Bull's Max Verstappen, the pace-setter after Q1 and Q2, had to settle for second (1:39.814) with team-mate Daniel Ricciardo (1:39.840) just behind him. Vettel's team-mate Kimi Raikkonen (1:40.069) was fourth.
Everything had pointed to a Red Bull 1-2 on the starting grid until Vettel's burst of brilliance. Ricciardo was fastest in practice on Friday, while Verstappen seemed poised to become Formula One's first teenage pole-sitter yesterday.
Both Red Bull drivers were visibly crestfallen at the result, but tried to look on the positive side of things.
"The whole weekend was good progression," said Verstappen, who turns 20 at the end of this month. "To be second here on this track is very promising."
Ricciardo also insisted: "I still believe so (that I can win)."
F1 SINGAPORE GP
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