Lewis Hamilton saved the best till last to claim a stunning pole in a qualifying session full of surprises in Barcelona.
The Briton overcame a resurgent Nico Rosberg to claim pole by just over a tenth of a second from the German as the Mercedes claimed their second 1-2 result in qualifying this season.
With the temperatures rising, and the tyres still not gripping the Circuit de Catalunya, the drivers were struggling to put a perfect lap together.
Indeed the lack of grip caught Pastor Maldonado out very early in the first part of qualifying as the Venezuelan spun his Lotus into the wall at the exit of turn three after running wide onto the Astroturf.
The leading Mercedes, Red Bull and Fernando Alonso were the only drivers to get through the first session on the slower hard compound tyres, but the battle within the Silver Arrows heated up as Rosberg began to have the edge on Hamilton for the first time this weekend.
With Maldonado crashing out the question would be which other midfield car would join the two slower teams in the elimination zone, and the answer would be Sauber’s Adrian Sutil as Jenson Button produced a last gasp effort to haul his McLaren through.
Of the slower teams the Marussia’s new upgrades have moved them clear of Caterham and despite two trips in the gravel earlier in the weekend, it was Max Chilton who beat Jules Bianchi for the second time this season as the Brit claimed 18th.
At Caterham Marcus Ericsson also beat his team-mate, Kamui Kobayashi, for the first time this season.
Into Q2 and problems for Jean-Eric Vergne and Kevin Magnussen forced both drivers to miss the session. After his 10-place grid penalty for losing a wheel during Friday practice, Vergne will drop to 22nd while Magnussen will start 15th.
As one Sauber struggled, Esteban Gutierrez continued to show his improved qualifying this season by claiming 14th for the Swiss team with the sole running Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat ahead in 13th.
Barcelona is something of a bogey circuit for Force India having only got one car into the top in any qualifying session in their history and that disappointing statistic remains as both Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez missed out on Q3 in 11th and 12th respectively.
Heading into the top 10 shoot-out it was the two Mercedes, Rosberg still having an edge of Hamilton, the two Red Bull’s, with Daniel Ricciardo holding a four tenth advantage over Sebastian Vettel, the two Ferrari’s, the two Williams’ and an impressive showing from Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean for Lotus.
The two Mercedes went straight out to set their first timed runs and the pair were very closely matched, however, as they approached the end of their lap’s Sebastian Vettel caused a second red flag in the session as his Red Bull lost drive entering turn three.
That means the German will start in 10th while the Mercedes drivers refocused for a second run on tyres that had slightly worn.
This was the moment the pendulum seemed to swing back to Hamilton as the Briton went three tenths clear of Rosberg as Ricciardo put himself third.
All three drivers would improve on their final laps, this time on brand new tyres, but it was still Hamilton who led with a 1:25.232 to hold a .168 advantage to Rosberg in second as Ricciardo consolidated third.
Two impressive laps from Valtteri Bottas and Romain Grosjean moved them to fourth and fifth respectively ahead of Kimi Raikkonen who out-qualifies Fernando Alonso at the Spaniard’s home race. Jenson Button collected eighth with Felipe Massa disappointing in ninth.
At the front, however, the day belongs to Lewis Hamilton once again. The Briton overcame a nervy first two segments where his Mercedes wasn’t where he wanted it to claim his fourth pole in a row.
Rosberg admits he has to beat Hamilton this weekend to try to stop some of his team-mates momentum but that could be very difficult as starting from the dirty side of the grid puts him at risk from the ever-impressive Ricciardo behind.
Another fascinating race is set for tomorrow where tyres, temperatures and maybe another great duel between the Silver Arrows awaits.
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