Nico Rosberg has claimed his fifth consecutive pole position and second in a row at Brazil ahead of Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton.
Rosberg seemed to have the measure of Hamilton throughout qualifying, but the gap narrowed to 0.088 seconds after the first runs of Q3.
Rosberg’s second lap improved his time by around two-tenths, but a marginally faster lap from Hamilton shrunk the gap to its final 0.078-second margin.
“Of course I’m pleased with today, it’s the best place to be in for tomorrow’s race,” said Rosberg. “The car worked well in qualifying. Quali thre really got going.
“I got some good laps in — the last lap was on edge, a couple of big moments in there, but happy to get a good time.”
It’s an important breaker for Rosberg, who gave up his 2014 pole form this year to Hamilton, who started from first in 11 of the first 12 races.
With the drivers championship decided in favour of his teammate and the pressure off, Rosberg seems to have slowly come back into form — though he denied the correlation.
“I just think about the individual races,” he insisted. “I’m here to win, and that’s it really.
“As a side effect P2 in the championship is there to be had, which is better than P3 for sure, but it’s better to end on a high than a low.”
Hamilton, whose preparation for the race was hampered by a fever earlier in the week before a car crash in Monaco forced him to fly to Brazil a day later than planned, said there was no obvious reason for the fine margin.
“It was good today,” he said. “I got a really good balance with the car. The laps were looking quite good. I was just aiming to find that small bit of edge.”
Hamilton, who has made no secret of his idolisation of Ayrton Senna, said earlier in the week that winning in Brazil, where he has never succeeded before, would be a meaningful milestone for him — but denied after qualifying that the race is any more important to him than any other.
“My main job’s done this year, so it’s not the most important thing, but that’s the target,” he explained. “Last year I was strong in the race, so I hope to carry that through to tomorrow and make a difference.”
Sebastian Vettel put his Ferrari faithfully in third, half a second down on the Mercedes cars, after struggling with his car’s front end and suffering a number of lock-ups on his opening Q3 lap.
“I knew Q3 would be difficult to get really close,” said Vettel. “I think in the end we were able to improve the car from yesterday.
“We would love to be closer, but nevertheless it was the optimum for us today.”
Vettel was separated from teammate Kimi Räikkönen in fifth by Valtteri Bottas, who was two-tenths down on the German and one-tenth quicker than the Finn.
The time is academic for Bottas, however, because he carries a three-place grid penalty for passing under red flags during Friday practice, putting the Williams sixth on tomorrow’s grid.
Along with Räikkönen, who will be bumped up to fourth alongside his teammate on the second row, Nico Hülkenberg was a beneficiary of Bottas’ penalty, moving up to fifth on the grid after qualifying sixth quickest in his Force India.
Daniil Kvyat qualified seventh for Red Bull Racing, outqualifying teammate Daniel Ricciardo by two places and 0.1 seconds despite using an older specification Renault power unit.
Ricciardo, however, denied after qualifying that the new power unit was any sort of improvement over the old one, corroborating commentary from team principal Christian Horner that his car was actually 7 kilometres per hour slower in the speed trap compared to Kvyat’s car.
Between the Red Bull cars slotted Felipe Massa for Williams, who struggled with traffic for most of qualifying to seventh on the grid.
Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso was the slowest entry into Q3 in tenth, but will be promoted one place along with everyone down to Will Stevens after Ricciardo takes his 10-place grid penalty for taking a new specification of Renault engine.
The closely-matches midfield slugged it out to make the final qualifying session, exacerbating the traffic problem on the circuit when most cars took to the track.
Less than half a second separated the Q2 knock-out zone, after just one second separated the top 10, and it was Sauber’s Felipe Nasr who was the quickest driver to miss Q1.
Nasr came within 0.1 seconds of replacing compatriot Felipe Massa in the top 10 after seemingly blocking him in Q1, raising the ire of the stewards.
Carlos Sainz qualified twelfth despite Max Verstappen making it into Q1; likewise Sergio Perez qualified thirteenth after Nico Hülkenberg put his Force India in P6 for the session
Marcus Ericsson qualified in P14, ahead of Romain Grosjean, who spun his Lotus in the middle sector of his quickest lap, flat-spotting his tyres and eliminating the Frenchman from contention.
Though the short circuit bunched up the qualifying time sheets, the usual suspects struggled in Q1, beginning with McLaren-Honda.
It took Fernando Alonso’s car just 12 minutes to give up the ghost, the Spaniard parking the car on the grass with a lack of power, accepting a last-place start in the process.
It only got worse for McLaren when Jenson Button failed to outqualify anyone bar the Manor drivers, marking the eighth race this season in which both McLaren cars were knocked out in Q1.
Pastor Maldonado was the highest-placed car to be knocked out, claiming P16 for the fourth year in a row in Brazil, ahead of Button and the Manor drivers Alexander Rossi and Will Stevens respectively.