Formula One: Champion Hamilton on pole for Bahrain GP

MANAMA (AFP) - Series leader and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton secured his fourth straight pole position of the season Saturday when he outpaced all his rivals in qualifying for Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.

The 30-year-old Briton, in untouchable form, crushed his opponents' efforts to stay with him as he delivered a stunning final lap in one minute and 32.571 seconds.

This lifted him clear of Germans Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari, on the front row of the grid, and his Mercedes team-mate and rival Nico Rosberg, who was third ahead of Finn Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari.

"I feel great, very happy," he said afterwards. "That was the target, to try to master this track. That's how it's gone this weekend. The laps were pretty good, you can always improve, but I'm grateful to have this beast underneath me and really feel I can attack the corners here."

The two Williams of Finn Valtteri Bottas and Brazilian Felipe Massa were fifth and sixth ahead of Australian Daniel Ricciardo of Red Bull and German Nico Hulkenberg of Force India.

Hamilton was four-tenths of a second faster than Vettel and half a second quicker than a disappointed Rosberg, who had been bidding for a third successive Bahrain pole in a bid to rekindle his title challenge after winning just one of the last 12 races.

Rosberg admitted: "Strategy-wise, I got it wrong today... I was thinking too much about the race and I under-estimated Sebastian's speed.

"I took it easy in Q2 to save the race tyres, so I lacked the rhythm for Q3. That's where I went wrong today. Being third is not ideal."

It was Hamilton's first pole in Bahrain, the first time he has taken four poles in a row and the 42nd of his career.

Vettel delighted Ferrari's fans and management. He said: "I am very happy with second today. It was a tough session, I didn't find the rhythm to begin with, but at the end it was getting better and I could push.

"Very happy with the front row - in the race we are maybe a bit closer so let's see what happens."

The opening Q1 session saw the usual suspects in control once they switched to soft tyres with Hamilton emerging fastest ahead of Bottas and Rosberg.

Spaniard Fernando Alonso, notably, reached Q2 for the first time in his McLaren Honda while Rosberg, having considered staying on medium tyres and a banker lap, had to make a late second run on softs to deliver his time.

Out went Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado of Lotus, after suffering familiar Renault engine problems, Russian Daniil Kvyat in his Red Bull, bright Briton Will Stevens and his Manor Marussia team-mate Spaniard Roberto Merhi and luckless 2009 champion Briton Jenson Button who failed to clock a serious time, again, in his McLaren Honda and managed only three laps.

By the time Q2 was under way, the temperatures were dropping and the lights were on to create a stunning atmosphere to match Hamilton's lap in 1:32.669 which was clearly the fastest. It was more than a second quicker than Rosberg's, set just minutes earlier.

Raikkonen was second quickest and both Massa and Vettel were faster than Rosberg, who was fifth, just ahead of Bottas. For Hamilton it was a major signal of intent before the top ten shootout.

Out went Mexican Sergio Perez of Force India, Brazilian Felipe Nasr and his Sauber team-mate Swede Marcus Ericsson, Alonso, who was 14th, and Dutch teenager Max Verstappen of Toro Rosso.

The Q1 showdown began with Vettel and Raikkonen hurrying out to begin the session for Ferrari with the Mercedes men soon following to set the preliminary pace on the first runs.