Lewis Hamilton will start tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix from pole position after edging out Mercedes teammate and probable championship rival Nico Rosberg in qualifying at the Shanghai International Circuit on Saturday.
The defending Formula 1 world champion had dominated proceedings in practice, and carried this form into qualifying by producing a scintillating final lap in Q3 that was good enough to secure him a fifth pole position at the Chinese Grand Prix.
However, he was very nearly denied pole by Rosberg, who fell just 0.042 seconds short in the final stage of qualifying, leaving him frustrated in second place on the grid ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Felipe Massa.
Hamilton began qualifying as he meant to go on by posting the fastest time in the early part of Q1, easing into the second stage on the medium tire whilst the rest of the field had to complete at least one run on the faster soft compound. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were unable to challenge the Mercedes duo at first, but eventually secured a one-two after both drivers made the tire switch later on in the session.
It proved to be the right decision as the track rubbered in quickly towards the end of Q1, resulting in a number of changes towards the bottom of the timesheets. McLaren’s progress was not so clear in qualifying as Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso dropped out in Q1 once again, whilst Nico Hulkenberg was caught out by improvements from cars towards the bottom, leaving him in 16th.
The Manor duo of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi qualified P19 and P20, but ensured their place on the grid for the race by finishing within the 107% time.
Q2 saw Mercedes make the move onto the soft tire and quickly put it to good use as Hamilton and Rosberg eased into P1 and P2 at the beginning of the session. Their advantage over the rest of the field stood at 1.6 seconds until Ferrari sent its drivers out, with Vettel half a second down on Hamilton. Both teams were able to stick to just one run in Q2, assured of their place in the final part of qualifying.
The small margins between the midfield cars meant that all of the drivers from fifth to 15th were at risk of dropping out, with Williams’ Felipe Massa being the big name on the brink of elimination. The Brazilian was one of a number of drivers to improve and get through though, as Sauber got both of its drivers into Q3 for the first time since the 2013 United States Grand Prix.
Pastor Maldonado dropped out in Q2 once again, alongside Daniil Kvyat of Red Bull and the Toro Rosso pair of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz. Sergio Perez languished at the bottom of the timesheets in Q2 in P15.
With Ferrari opting to re-use a set of its tires from Q1 at the start of Q3, Hamilton and Rosberg were left to fight among themselves for provisional pole position on their first runs in the final session. Hamilton produced a near-perfect lap to go almost three-tenths quicker than Rosberg, whilst Massa was 1.5 seconds down on his time in third place.
However, both of the Mercedes drivers were forced to go out for a second run when Ferrari moved onto fresh options, giving Rosberg one final chance to deny his teammate pole position. His cause was aided when Hamilton produced a scrappy last lap in Q3 and failed to improve. However, despite posting the fastest final sector time of the weekend with his final effort, Rosberg fell 0.042 seconds short, handing Hamilton a third straight pole position in China.
Sebastian Vettel produced a good final lap to put his Ferrari third on the grid, albeit some nine-tenths of a second down on Hamilton. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas ran well for Williams to qualify fourth and fifth, whilst Kimi Raikkonen had to settle for sixth place in the sister Ferrari.
Daniel Ricciardo and Romain Grosjean both outperformed their teammate stop secure P7 and P8 respectively, whilst Sauber locked out the fifth row as Felipe Nasr beat Marcus Ericsson to ninth place.
After losing out in Malaysia to Ferrari, Mercedes has bounced back in style in qualifying on Saturday. However, the Silver Arrows will know that the job is only half done, with tomorrow’s race set to provide a thrilling battle between Hamilton, Rosberg and perhaps Vettel at the front.
You can watch the Chinese Grand Prix live on NBCSN from 1:30a ET on Sunday.