Lewis Hamilton has taken his second consecutive pole position of the season after a super final flying lap in Shanghai qualifying.
Hamilton took provisional pole from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 0.184 seconds after the pair’s first Q3 laps, but Hamilton’s second lap lowered the bar by almost three-tenths in his pursuit of the front row.
It looked like it was game over when Vettel’s dropped 0.2 seconds in the first sector of his reply lap, but the German made up time around the rest of the track to maintain an almost identical gap to the Briton, qualifying P2 just 0.186 seconds off the pace.
Hamilton said it was a particularly satisfying pole given Friday testing was called off due to poor weather.
“Today was a real challenge for us,” Hamilton said. “We had to compile all of yesterday’s testing into the morning and hope that we hit the nail on the head with the balance of the car.”
“We knew it was going to be close and that we’d have to pull out all the stops.
“It’s more exciting than ever for me because we’re really fighting these guys [Ferrari].
“It’s amazing, I think that’s what racing’s all about, and it pushes you to raise the bar every time you go out, which I love.”
Vettel was again pleased Ferrari was close to the previously dominant Mercedes cars.
“Obviously it was a nice session, I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “I think if we could’ve been a bit quicker in the end, I could’ve enjoyed it more!
“I think our car is strong no matter what; it obviously depends on what these guys [Mercedes] are doing. Certainly we’ve seen in previous years in quali that they certainly seem to be able to get on top.”
The Ferrari pipped Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, by the narrowest of margins — 0.001 seconds — and the Finn said he was disappointed to not make the result a Mercedes one-two.
“It’s a real shame he managed to get between us,” Bottas said. “But, again, the race is tomorrow and we’re starting as a team from first and third — it’s a good place to start.”
While the top three was close, Kimi Räikkönen finished a more distant fourth, the Finn explaining away his 0.462 gap to pole by complaining of poor grip and rear downforce.
That qualifying was again a finely-balanced fight suggests the Chinese Grand Prix could be as close a battle between Ferrari and Mercedes as the first race in Australia, with Vettel and Hamilton locked in a tactical fight for the win throughout.
Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth in what looks to be the best-of-the-rest qualifying slot. The Australian’s Red Bull Racing car was a significant 1.355 seconds off pole, but his consolation was that his best time was three-tenths faster than Felipe Massa could manage in his Williams in P6.
Nico Hülkenberg impressed again for Renault by qualifying seventh and just 0.6 seconds slower than Ricciardo’s Renault-powered RB13, demonstrating the French manufacturer’s impressive offseason progress.
Daniil Kvyat did will to qualify his Toro Rosso in ninth, while Lance Stroll completed a clean Q3 to qualify tenth, albeit 0.7 seconds slower than teammate Massa.
The middle qualifying segment in China was a close-fought affair, with the new 2017 midfield split across just 0.6 seconds between P5 and P12.
Carlos Sainz was the quickest driver to miss out. He was outqualified by teammate Daniil Kvyat by 0.1 seconds but ahead of Haas’s Kevin Magnussen with just a 0.014-second margin.
Fernando Alonso, who said he was pushing “like an animal” to get his car into Q2 in the first place, could do no better than P13, but the Spaniard still put his underpowered McLaren-Honda 0.7 seconds ahead of Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber in P14.
Antonio Giovinazzi was classified in P15, but did not partake in the session after his Q1 crash.
The first segment of qualifying got underway with most cars opting for supersoft tyres — the softest compound of the weekend — due to the durability of Pirelli’s new rubber.
The notable exceptions were both Ferrari cars, with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen using only the soft compound throughout — and Vettel still topped the time sheet regardless.
Despite Ferrari’s ominous early advantage, Max Verstappen and Antonio Giovinazzi stole the show, with the former struggling with power unit issues and the latter crashing his car.
Giovinazzi crashed in the final minute of qualifying when he lost control on the exit of the final corner, sending the car spinning across the track and clattering into the inside barrier.
The smash ended the session, which meant that Verstappen, who was suffering from power unit problems, couldn’t complete his final lap and was stuck in P19 — though the Dutchman’s engine issues meant he was unlikely to make the Q2 cut anyway.
Stoffel Vandoorne was the quickest man to be eliminated, the McLaren driver finishing in P16 but 0.6 seconds behind teammate Fernando Alonso.
Romain Grosjean set the seventeenth-fastest time in a difficult session for the Haas driver.
The Frenchman spun his car out of the last corner, but unlike Giovinazzi, Grosjean’s only brushed his rear-left supersoft tyre against the barrier, picking up a puncture and forcing him to complete an excruciatingly slow lap back to the pits for a fresh set.
Jolyon Palmer followed Grosjean, the Renault driver all of 0.9 seconds slower than teammate Nico Hülkenberg, who progressed to Q2.
Both Palmer and Grosjean’s poor afternoons were compounded with five-place grid penalties for failing to slow for Giovinazzi-triggered double waved yellow flags.
Behind Verstappen in P19 qualified Esteban Ocon, slowest of all, in P20.