SINGAPORE - McLaren's Lewis Hamilton continued his surge in the second half of the season by nailing down pole position for the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix with a stirring drive around the Marina Bay Street Circuit on Saturday.
The Briton has won two of the last three races to close within 37 points of championship leader Fernando Alonso with seven rounds remaining, and will be confident of converting McLaren's fourth consecutive pole into a fourth successive team victory.
Hamilton won this race in 2009 and became the first man to secure pole here twice with a lap of 1 minute 46.362 seconds, almost half a second ahead of Williams' Pastor Maldonado, who drove brilliantly to claim a front row spot.
"The guys have done a fantastic job all week and to come here with some small things that have improved from the last race," Hamilton told reporters after securing a 24th pole of his career.
"It is an incredibly tough circuit for tyre degradation... especially as it is hot and humid here," the 2008 world champion added.
"I think everyone is going to struggle with that, so we just have to try and get away cleanly at the start and try to stick to the strategy we have planned and be prepared if it doesn't work."
World champion Sebastian Vettel had dominated the three practice sessions prior to qualifying but his Red Bull could only finish third in 1:46.905, narrowly ahead of Hamilton's McLaren team mate Jenson Button.
"I am a little disappointed and I don't know why we couldn't do the step up but I think third is a good position to start from," Vettel said.
"It is a long race and a lot of things can happen. I think the pace is there, we have proven that throughout the weekend but surely, if you don't do the last step in qualifying then it is a shame because I think the speed was there."
Maldonado has struggled for pace since winning the Spanish Grand Prix in May but took heart from his car's improved performance in qualifying and during practice on race pace runs with high fuel loads.
"We were finally able to put the car together and in qualifying managed to find a very good balance and I am really looking forward to tomorrow," the Venezuelan said.
"We did a couple of long runs yesterday (Friday) and they were good for us in terms of tyre degradation."
Alonso clocked the fifth fastest time but the Spaniard has made a habit of picking up big points in his Ferrari despite qualifying down the grid and will be looking for a similar performance on Sunday at a circuit where he has won twice.
"To start in fifth on the clean side will offer us some good possibilities to fight for the podium tomorrow which is maybe the maximum this weekend," the double world champion said.
"I think strategy will be a good part tomorrow. We saw last year a lot of degradation, a lot of pitstops... we need to take care of the tyres, the pitstops, when we do it.
"Many things can play tomorrow, especially the weather, because a thunderstorm is always a possibility."
The top 10 was rounded out by Force India's Paul di Resta, Red Bull's Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean in a Lotus, and the Mercedes duo of Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, who both opted against setting timed laps in the final qualifying run.
The second qualifying session claimed some major casualties in Felipe Massa, Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez but all the drivers were unanimous in their criticism of the 'Singapore Sling' turn 10 chicane with Vettel dismissing it as the "worst corner on the calendar". (Editing by Tom Pilcher)