Leclerc takes 4th straight pole at Russian GP, Hamilton 2nd

<p>
              Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc of Monaco steers his racer during the third free practice at the 'Sochi Autodrom' Formula One circuit, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday Sept. 28, 2019. The Formula one race will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
            </p>

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Charles Leclerc clinched his fourth straight pole position and championship leader Lewis Hamilton was second in qualifying at Formula One’s Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Leclerc finished 0.402 seconds clear of Hamilton, with Leclerc’s Ferrari teammate Sebastian Vettel third fastest at the Sochi Autodrome.

Hamilton is bidding for his first win since the summer break and his Mercedes team is often the dominant force in Russia, having won all of the five races staged here.

Hamilton is 65 points ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas in his quest for a sixth world title, but looks to have his work cut out against Leclerc.

Alex Albon crashed out of qualifying. The London-born Thai spun at the slow-speed Turn 13 before slamming into the barriers. The driver was unhurt.

Vettel finished ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen but the Dutch driver will be bumped back five places following a grid penalty for changes to his engine.

Ferrari, winless in the opening half of the season, is now the team to beat as it seeks a fourth consecutive victory.

While Vettel ended his 13-month losing streak in Singapore last weekend, it is Leclerc who continues to impress in his opening season with the Scuderia.

This marked his sixth pole this season and it is also the 10th straight round Leclerc has out-qualified Vettel, the four-time world champion, who was 0.425 slower in qualifying.

“It definitely feels great to be back on pole,” said Leclerc, who became the first Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher to claim four straight poles.

Leclerc is 96 points behind Hamilton in the championship, with a total of only 156 to play for in the remaining six races. Hamilton has not been on pole since the German Grand Prix in July, a streak of five races, but was delighted to have split the Ferraris with his final effort.

“I gave it everything I could in the end and I am so glad it came together,” Hamilton said. “I wasn’t expecting to be on the front row so I am really happy.”

Bottas finished fifth in qualifying. The Finn will join Vettel on the second row following Verstappen’s penalty.

Earlier Saturday, McLaren said the team will be powered by Mercedes from 2021, ending its association with Renault at the end of the 2020 campaign. The long-term agreement will run until at least 2024.