MONZA, Italy (AP) The complete overhaul at Ferrari that began a year ago is starting to show signs of paying off.
And with the future of the pre-eminent Formula One team’s home race in question, the timing could not have been better for narrowing the gap behind Mercedes.
Lewis Hamilton extended his recent stranglehold on pole position but Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel gave the throngs of red-clad Ferrari fans something to cheer about at the Italian Grand Prix by qualifying second and third Saturday.
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Raikkonen was only 0.234 behind and Vettel was 0.288 back.
”It’s nice to see that we have a good fight,” said Hamilton, the championship leader. ”It’s a long run down to turn one and these guys have pace.”
It was Hamilton’s seventh straight pole and 11th in 12 races this season, with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg beating him only in Spain.
Ayrton Senna set the record of eight consecutive poles in 1988-89.
”(Ferrari) have obviously made an improvement this weekend,” Hamilton said. ”But I didn’t do the perfect lap. If I had (the gap) would have been a little more.”
Rosberg qualified only fourth after reverting to an old engine.
”It definitely has compromised my weekend,” Rosberg said. ”On the data you can see that.”
Rosberg’s result left Mercedes chief Toto Wolff shaking his head – contrasting sharply with celebrations in Ferrari’s garage.
It’s Raikkonen’s first front-row start since China in 2013.
”We surprised ourselves a little bit,” said Raikkonen, who renewed his contract last month. ”It’s been a while so it’s nice to be here, especially at the home race for us.”
In perfect conditions following a morning thunderstorm, Ferrari fans blew air horns and waved flags featuring the team’s prancing horse logo.
”Usually we’re more confident for the race than qualifying, so hopefully it’s the same thing tomorrow,” Raikkonen said.
Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of Ferrari’s parent company Fiat Chrysler, and Ferrari Vice Chairman Piero Ferrari, met with Vettel and Raikkonen before qualifying.
It was exactly a year ago that Marchionne initiated major changes at Ferrari, leading to the departure of the automaker’s president of 23 years, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. The disciplinarian Maurizio Arrivabene was named team principal and four-time world champion Vettel was hired to replace Fernando Alonso.
”This is a huge step forward,” Marchionne said. ”I expected Kimi to relax once he renewed his contract. He’s a great driver.”
The last time a Ferrari driver won the season-long championship was Raikkonen in 2007 during the Finn’s first stint with the team. The squad’s last constructors’ trophy came in 2008.
”It’s not a secret we’re not where we want to be yet but I think today we’re a step closer,” Vettel said. ”And that’s important not only for the people in the grandstand but also the people in the garage.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday Italian Premier Matteo Renzi is due to meet with Bernie Ecclestone to try and convince the F1 boss to keep Monza on the calendar after the circuit’s contract expires next year.
”Let’s see if we can then celebrate with Renzi,” Marchionne said.
Star Wars creator George Lucas was also among the celebrities in the paddock.
Hamilton holds a 28-point lead over Rosberg, with Vettel 67 points back in third with eight races remaining this season.
Vettel’s wins in Malaysia and Hungary were the only non-Mercedes victories this year.
”It’s a fantastic result, second and third, and very close to Lewis which is the most important thing,” Vettel said. ”That makes us very confident for tomorrow.”
The result moved Mercedes within one of Williams’ record of 24 straight poles, set in 1992 and 1993 with Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill.
”I’m hoping that Nico pulls through and we both can do a good job,” Hamilton said. ”It’s always good to do it on (Ferrari’s) home turf if possible.”
Hamilton has two wins at Monza, including last year, plus three podiums.
The last time Mercedes didn’t take pole came at last year’s Austrian GP, when Felipe Massa of Williams took the first spot on the grid.
Massa and Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas qualified fifth and sixth, respectively, followed by Sergio Perez of Force India in seventh and Romain Grosjean of cash-strapped Lotus in eighth.
Known as the ”temple of speed” with its long straightaways, Monza is the fastest circuit in F1.
Perez recorded the highest speed of 355 kph (220 mph).
Nico Hulkenberg in the other Force India was ninth and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson rounded out the top 10, although the Swede will drop three positions on the starting grid for impeding Hulkenberg.
Andrew Dampf can be followed at www.twitter.com/asdampf