Hamilton sneaks to Spanish pole

Lewis Hamilton drives his Mercedes to pole position at Spain's Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

Lewis Hamilton has denied Sebastian Vettel pole position in a tightly fought qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Despite Ferrari and Mercedes heavily upgrading their cars ahead of this weekend, Hamilton and Vettel were separated by just 0.051 seconds by the end of the afternoon, the gap as close as ever.

Lewis could consider himself fortunate to have scored his third pole of the season, however, after he failed to improve his time with his final qualifying lap — but a lock-up for Vettel on his last lap ensured the Briton clung to pole.

Both Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen threatened throughout the weekend to play a part in the pole fight, but neither could mount a serious challenge when push came to shove.

Bottas, having lost almost all of FP3 on Saturday morning with power unit problems, was 0.224 seconds off pole in third, and his red-clad compatriot was 0.066 seconds further back.

Max Verstappen, returning to the scene of his maiden F1 victory last season, put his upgraded Red Bull Racing RB13 in fifth place.

The Dutchman’s best time was 0.557 seconds off pole, suggesting Red Bull Racing has made modest gains on the front-runners — though Daniel Ricciardo was a surprising half-second slower than his teammate in P6.

It was Fernando Alonso’s sensational seventh place that stole the show, however, with the Spaniard overdriving his underpowered McLaren-Honda ahead of the entire midfield.

Alonso’s time was 1.9-second away from pole position, but it was the 0.022-second gap to Sergio Perez’s Force India that mattered most for the Indianapolis 500-bound Spaniard.

Felipe Massa was one-tenth behind Sergio Perez, while Esteban Ocon put the second Force India car a further tenth back for P10.

Fernando Alonso quest to put his underpowered McLaren-Honda into Q3 for the time this season superseded the usual tension of Formula One’s midfield battle in Q2.

The Spaniard put in two mighty qualifying laps in front of his home crowd, with the final flyer good enough to hold on to P10 by just 0.078 seconds.

Alonso’s electrifying lap bested cars well beyond McLaren’s station, with Kevin Magnussen’s Haas, Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso and Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault in places 11 to 13 all shown up by the double world champion.

Romain Grosjean could manage just P14, the Frenchman abandoning his final lap after making a mistake in the final chicane, while Pascal Wehrlein offered little challenge in P15.

Ferrari started the session with a fright when the team detected a problem with Sebastian Vettel’s freshly installed power unit.

However, the German was able to limp the car around the circuit for long enough for the team to realise the problem was with the pit wall, allowing him to progress to Q2.

With all teams running Pirelli’s soft compound — the softest tyre available this weekend, though numerous drivers have complained Pirelli has brought too hard tyres to this round — the track began to improve towards the end of the session.

Fernando Alonso, Carlos Sainz, Nico Hülkenberg and Felipe Massa were all at risk for McLaren, Toro Rosso, Renault and Williams, but last-gasp laps propelled them into the top 15.

It came at the expense of their teammate, however, who underwhelmed to various degrees.

Marcus Ericsson, who himself had been outqualified by his Sauber teammate, led the eliminated pack.

Jolyon Palmer qualified in P17 and 0.3 seconds behind teammate Hülkenberg.

Lance Stroll put his Williams in P18, but the rookie was 0.27 seconds slower than Massa in the sister car.

Stoffel Vandoorne underperformed to take second-last place on the grid a whopping half-second behind Alonso, who typically out-drove his car.

Daniil Kvyat will occupy the last spot on the grid with his Toro Rosso after setting a time almost an entire second behind teammate Sainz.