Montreal (AP) — Lewis Hamilton held the bright yellow helmet over his head for the cheering crowd to see, and gave it a kiss as if he had already won the weekend’s biggest prize.
The souvenir: A helmet worn by Ayrton Senna, whose family sent it in anticipation of one three-time Formula One champion matching another by claiming his 65th career pole position on Saturday at the Canadian Grand Prix.
“This is the most special thing I have, above all my trophies and everything,” Hamilton said after setting a record at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with a qualifying lap of 1 minute, 11.459 seconds. “I’m shaken, speechless. Ayrton, he was why I wanted to be here today.”
Hamilton remains three poles behind Michael Schumacher’s career record of 68. But it was Senna, Hamilton’s favorite driver, who was the target.
And seeing the yellow helmet brought back memories of his childhood in Britain, where he would pop in videotapes of Senna’s races and say, “That’s my driver.”
“That’s what kids notice, the yellow helmet,” Hamilton said. “As a kid, I would come home and I would go, ‘If I’m really lucky and can get to Formula One, I want to emulate Ayrton.'”
A five-time winner at the Canadian GP, which celebrates its 50th anniversary, Hamilton already led qualifying — but by just four one-thousandths of a second over Sebastien Vettel — when he made his final trip around the circuit.
It was the fastest qualifying lap ever at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, almost 1.5 seconds faster than the pace that won him last year’s pole and even one second better than Vettel ran in his Ferrari during Saturday morning’s practice.
“It was a sexy lap,” Hamilton said.
Vettel was still on the track, with another chance to catch Hamilton. But the F1 leader lost time in Turn 2 and couldn’t make up the time. He finished over three-tenths behind, followed by Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari.
“He was the better man today,” Vettel said. “But the car is really good. It should be really good in the race.”
Vettel holds a 129-104 lead over Hamilton in the standings as Mercedes and Ferrari have dueled in one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory.
“I’m expecting it to be very close in the race with Ferrari,” Bottas said. “It’s all about tomorrow.”
Hamilton was seventh in Monaco in the last race, his lowest finish this year and his second time missing the podium in six races. But a return to Canada, where he earned his first victory in 2007 and is the two-time defending champion, gives Mercedes a chance to close the gap in the standings.
“I really do love this track,” he said. “Today we showed that we can have an answer (to Ferrari) if we put the work in.”
Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were fifth and sixth in qualifying, and Felipe Massa was seventh in what has come to be known as the “best of the rest.”
“This circuit is not our favorite and doesn’t particularly suit us, so (fifth) was the best we could aim for,” Verstappen said. “Ferrari and Mercedes are able to turn their engines up and find that extra pace. We can’t do that at the moment.”
The Honda of two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso, which has struggled to be competitive, was 12th.
“Obviously, we’d like to be further forward, but I believe we maximized the potential today with a good, clean lap,” Alonso said. “The first priority tomorrow will be to finish the race. And, if we can be in the points, that’ll be great.”
Local favorite Lance Stroll, who would be the first native Montrealais to drive in the Canadian GP since Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion and the son of the track’s namesake, was 17th. He was locked out of a chance to improve when a crash by Pascal Wehrlein ended the first qualifying session early.