Lewis Hamilton has taken a 2015 pole hat-trick in Shanghai and will line up alongside Nico Rosberg for tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix.
Hamilton’s first run in Q3 was enough to secure him pole by a margin of 0.042 seconds over Rosberg, despite the former lapping two-tenths slower than Rosberg on the pair’s second flying laps of the session.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel qualified third, 0.905 seconds off the pace.
“China continues to be a good circuit for me,” said Hamilton. “The car’s handling fantastically well this weekend — and a lot better than how it was in Malaysia.
“This team continues to do an amazing job to regroup after the last race and bring improvements this weekend. I’m very grateful for that.”
Nico Rosberg was an immensely disappointed P2 — ironic given his upbeat demeanour when outqualified by significantly greater margins in rounds one and two.
Usually expansive in press conferences, the German was curt after getting out of the car this week.
“Definitely,” he answered when asked if pole was there for the taking. “When its four-hundredths, it’s nothing.
“I’m frustrated where I am because it’s so close. I wanted to have pole today.”
Much of Mercedes’ preparation this weekend has been about covering off Ferrari’s threatening race pace and tyre usage, and qualifying proved no exception.
Mercedes attempted to minimise its use of the soft tyre in qualifying, but Ferrari forced it to use an extra set in Q3 by running a used set during the first runs and keeping the gap to the front a mystery.
Hamilton and Rosberg had no choice but to cover off the theoretical Ferrari threat — but it ultimately had more than enough pace to lock out the front row.
“We have a tough race ahead of us tomorrow,” warned Hamilton. “Nico’s very quick and Ferrari’s very good with its long run pace.”
Vettel agreed, with the SF15T’s easy tyre wear the only card in Ferrari’s hand against Mercedes at this point in the season.
“Tomorrow we should be a bit closer,” said the German, “but how close, we’ll find out.
“I’m looking forward to going racing. It’s a long race, tyres are very important.
We’ll try to do well and get a lot of points.”
The Italian squad has made an effort to keep expectations in check since last round’s surprise victory, but the seemed taken aback by the outright pace Mercedes has recovered since Malaysia.
Vettel said P3 was the optimum result considering the raw pace difference.
“I’m happy with today,” he said. “Obviously these guys were a bit quicker than we expected.
“We got everything right and P3 was our maximum today.”
The difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will be fought over the durability of the soft tyre — Ferrari seemed able to extend the life of the quicker rubber, but Rosberg admitted the Mercedes car didn’t feel comfortable running on it, and it wouldn’t be the race tyre of choice for him.
Disappointing for Ferrari was Kimi Räikkönen’s P6, separated from his teammate by the Williams cars of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.
Räikkönen had one lap to nail a qualifying time after Ferrari strategically sent him out on used tyres for his first run, but an oversteer moment out of turn two undermined his session.
The Williams duo, meanwhile, were happy to mix with the Ferrari cars after data from practice suggested it may have fallen into the clutches of Red Bull Racing.
Felipe Massa was fourth and two-tenths of a second behind Vettel, with Valtteri Bottas a further 0.2 seconds behind.
Behind Kimi Räikkönen, Daniel Ricciardo admitted Red Bull Racing’s pre-qualifying expectations was for a top-five classification, but that he was satisfied seventh was the most the car had to give.
Both Ricciardo and teammate Daniil Kvyat were suffering from severe brake overheating issues throughout practice, minimising their time on track and pitching Kvyat into the barrier with a brake failure on Saturday.
Kvyat was eliminated in Q2, and will start from five place back from his teammate, in P12.
Romain Grosjean was the quickest of the midfield cars, keeping the surprisingly nimble Sauber cars at bay to qualify eighth, four-tenths behind Ricciardo.
Felipe Nasr will start from P9 after lapping one-tenth quicker than teammate Marcus Ericsson.
A new set of softs were the order of the day for all but the Williams and Sauber drivers, who attempted to make it through the session on recycled soft tyres from Q1.
All but Massa eventually switched to new soft tyres, while the Mercedes drivers were told to cautiously complete their in and out laps to prevent excessive wear on what would be the tyres with which they will start tomorrow’s race.
The drivers were left to make the difference when in Q2 as the track ramped up and changed conditions quickly.
Pastor Maldonado was the first driver to miss the cut and be separated from his teammate. Daniil Kvyat, after a scrappy first qualifying session, followed close behind the Venezuelan.
Toro Rosso duo Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz could do no better than P13 and P14, while Sergio Perez exceeded expectations just to make it to Q2 and eventually settled for P15.
Nico Hülkenberg was unable to unlock the additional pace from his struggling Force India car his teammate was apparently able to find, and could only do enough to pip the McLaren Hondas.
McLaren was optimistic for its qualifying chances, but hopes were swiftly dashed before the first hurdle.
Though Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso initially seemed set to mix with the midfield cars, the pack eventually pulled away from the duo to leave them P17 and P18.
Manor, which managed to get two cars on track simultaneously for the first time this weekend, qualified comfortably within the 107 per cent rule, but on the back row nonetheless.
Will Stevens, making his competitive debut after the team sat out of the Australian Grand Prix and his car failed before Malaysian qualifying, beat his teammate Roberto Merhi to P19.
The 2015 Chinese Grand Prix starts at 4PM AEST. Follow @BoxOfNeutrals and #ABCF1 for live Twitter coverage.