Nico Rosberg claimed pole position in qualifying for the reinstated Mexican Grand Prix on an unpredictable Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.
The renovated circuit, complete with freshly laid tarmac, has been slippery all weekend, and despite grip appearing to ramp up in Q3, it fell away again before the drivers had a chance to complete their final flying laps.
“I just felt good all weekend,” said the German. “I found a good balance in qualifying, so thanks to my engineers and the team. I was able to push and I got a really good lap in.
“It’s a good start for sure starting from pole. It’s a long run down to turn one, so it’s going to be an exciting battle.”
Rosberg, who grabbed provisional pole during the first runs, didn’t improve his time, and nor did he need to — with Hamilton initially leaving the pits behind Valtteri Bottas’ Williams and the track slowing down in any case, the reaffirmed world champion presented no challenge.
“This weekend Nico’s been quick,” admitted Hamilton. “I’ve just been chipping away at it.
“There were a couple of moments the car felt pretty spectacular, but for sure I can improve both my driving and my set up.
“Perhaps the way I went might be good for qualifying, but it should be good in the race.”
Critically, Hamilton — and all those with even-numbered grid spots — will start on the little-used side of the circuit, reducing available grip even further as thy attempt to launch themselves off the line for the race.
Sebastian Vettel qualified just two-tenths behind Hamilton in third place, putting him on the clean side of the grid, but thought the Ferrari might have been capable of more after practice.
“I think we were hoping for it to be a bit closer, but in the end it wasn’t,” said the Ferrari drive. “Already in Q1 with the hard tyre [Rosberg and Hamilton] looked very quick.
“It was difficult. I tried everything. I was very happy with the first attempt, and the second I tried too hard and didn’t go any faster.
“In the end [Mercedes] was just a sniff to quick.”
Vettel and Rosberg remain locked in a battle for second in the championship standings, with the Ferrari drive holding a four-point advantage.
Daniil Kvyat got a jump on his Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo early with a scarcely-believable 0.001 second margin, putting the pair fourth and fifth respectively on the grid.
The Renault power unit is less of an overall disadvantage around the Mexico City circuit because it sits at 2200 metres above sea level.
The thinner air at such a high altitude puts pressure on the turbo, which has to work harder to maintain engine performance, and Renault’s turbocharger is amongst the most effective on the grid.
Williams duo Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa qualified sixth and seventh despite serious concerns that the slippery conditions would work against a car that is happier on high-grip, low-downforce circuits.
Max Verstappen in his Renault-powered Toro Rosso snuck into eighth, 0.006 seconds ahead of home crowd favourite Sergio Perez and his Force India teammate Nico Hülkenberg.
Force India were disappointed not to get Perez higher up the grid after opting to run just one hot lap in Q3 — but by the time the Mexican took to the track it had slowed, limiting the strategy’s effectiveness.
The rain, which looked to be keeping away from the circuit earlier in the day, arrived suddenly towards the end of Q2, with some flecks of rain making the already low-grip circuit even less conducive to traction.
Those who left their hot lap until late in the session had their work cut out, and the late inclusions of Max Verstappen and Felipe Massa knocked down Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Lotus’ Romain Grosjean.
Grosjean lines up ahead of teammate Pastor Maldonado in P13, who wills it alongside Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson on the grid.
Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari qualified fifteenth with an old power unit, which was swapped into the car after a Saturday morning practice failure.
The Finn spun his car part of the way through the session, seemingly with brake by wire or bias issue, and retired, confirming his fate.
With grip so on the newly-surfaced circuit low despite Friday and Saturday practice all cars were spooked into qualifying the soft tyre, with the exception of Hamilton, who managed third-quickest on the mediums.
Before the conditions could be judged, however, McLaren withdrew Jenson Button’s car after one of his two new power units Honda fitted on Friday had developed a mysterious misfire.
The offending power unit couldn’t be changed in time for qualifying, sitting out the Briton for the rest of the day.
The MP4-30 didn’t look capable of much anyway — Fernando Alonso could only manage P16 and out, himself returning permanently to the garage at the end of Q1.
His car was just 0.01 seconds ahead of Sauber’s Felipe Nasr, both of whom will start ahead of Alexander Rossi and Wil Stevens in their Manor cars.