By Alan Baldwin
SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) – Lewis Hamilton made pole the goal after dominating Austrian Grand Prix practice with a “fantastically fast” Mercedes on Friday – and then had to accept it was not going to happen on the next day.
The triple Formula One world champion, who has been on pole position at the Red Bull Ring for the past two years, was favorite for the hat-trick to move closer to Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 68.
However, his team said later in the day he would collect a five-place penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change – something they had known but kept quiet about since Tuesday at least.
Hamilton is on 66 poles, meaning another in Spielberg on Saturday would have set him up to equal the record at Silverstone, his home British Grand Prix, next week.
“The goal is pole,” he had told reporters after twice lowering his own circuit lap record during the day’s two sessions. “But it’s still going to be a tough race on Sunday for sure.”
Hamilton, winner in Austria last year, is 14 points behind Ferrari’s championship leader Sebastian Vettel after eight races but still has a good chance of going into the August summer break in the lead.
Vettel, who like Hamilton has won three times so far this year, was only 0.147 seconds slower than his rival on Friday and Ferrari have a habit of closing the gap by the time Sunday comes around.
Hamilton said there were still some “driveability issues”, and the team had started out in a good place with the balance of a car that team boss Toto Wolff has called “a bit of a diva”.
“We had to swap out a spark plug during FP2 (the second session), but the guys did a great job to turn the car around and we still managed to complete our program,” Hamilton said.
“Most importantly, the car feels fantastically fast here. There’s already a nice balance and it feels good out on track. This car is so quick in comparison to what we raced here last year.
“It’s tricky, but a proper thrill to hook up a lap.”
Hamilton said a “road rage” furore that flared up after the race in Azerbaijan two weeks ago, with Vettel having steered at him and banged wheels after driving into the Mercedes behind the safety car, had not affected his concentration or calm.
“I have been training, keeping my head down, staying focused and staying quiet and making sure I came here healthy and strong so we can fight,” he said.
“These two weekends are important, I lost points in the last race and I want to reverse that. These next two are an opportunity.”
(Editing by Ken Ferris and Louise Ireland)