Nico Rosberg took pole position in a revitalised qualifying session at the Chinese Grand Prix after power unit problems in Lewis Hamilton’s car sent him to the back of the grid.
Rosberg appeared to be on the back foot after the first runs in Q3 delivered Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen provisional pole, but a flawless second lap banished his rivals by half a second.
“I’m pleased of course,” said Rosberg. “The whole weekend has gone well. The car was handling well today in qualifying. To get the lap done and put it on pole, I’m happy with that.”
But Rosberg was denied breaking teammate Hamilton’s pole run this season in a fair fight after a power unit problem prevented the Briton from completing any laps all afternoon, sending him to the back of the grid and a possible pit lane start.
“I’m not ecstatic because Lewis had bad luck and his car broke down. But anyway I’m pleased.”
Both Ferrari drivers made a mistake during the second runs of Q3 — Sebastian Vettel chose to make it his only hot lap of the session — which opened the door to Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo to slip into second on the grid.
“To be honest in qualifying I didn’t think we started in the best position,” said Ricciardo. “Second’s pretty awesome, we didn’t expect this.”
“With the balance we didn’t seem like we were really going to be in a fight with the front two rows.
“The supersoft is a tricky tyre to manage. To get the one lap out of it it’s not exactly easy, so just understanding that as the session went on … we got a good package at the end. “
Vettel’s scruffy lap meant he couldn’t overhaul Räikkönen, who, despite looking quick at the beginning of his second attempt, made a mistake at turn 14 that put him out of the fight for pole.
“Even the previous run same corner I ran really deep — too deep,” said the Finn. “In the last one I was quite a bit up on that lap, then just ran wide at the hairpin and lost a lot of time.
“It’s a shame — I think we had a chance to be at the top today, but that’s how it goes. We’ll try to make the best out of it tomorrow.”
Rosberg will start the race on the more durable soft tyre, while both Ferraris and the rest of the top 10 will start on the brittle supersofts, giving the Mercedes driver a strategic advantage in addition to track position.
Valtteri Bottas was fifth for Williams in the team’s best Saturday performance of the year, ahead of the second Red Bull Racing car piloted by Daniil Kvyat.
Sergio Perez made an effort to banish Force India’s poor opening two races with a P7 qualification ahead of Toro Rosso pair Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen.
Hülkenberg qualified tenth after a loose front-left put him out of Q2 and caused a red flag, ironically preventing the McLaren cars and Felipe Massa from usurping him on the timesheets.
The return of 2015-style qualifying meant a return of the rule requiring drivers who qualify in the top 10 to start the race on the tyre with which they set their fastest Q2 lap.
If the grid had forgotten, Rosberg reminded them when he use the middle compound soft tyre out of the garage.
Mercedes and Pirelli both suggested that the supersoft tyre would be good for perhaps a handful of laps at the beginning of the race, making starting on a harder tyre compared to one’s immediate rivals potentially advantageous.
Rosberg immediately set the fastest lap as the only eventual top-10 driver to try the soft tyre, and his time was usurped only by the Ferrari drivers.
The Ferrari drivers had both chosen to bring an extra set of supersoft tyres in exchange for a set of softs, somewhat hamstringing their qualifying strategy, and neither driver seemed to entertain the choice.
Nico Hülkenberg and Force India brought the session to a truncated close when the German’s front-left tyre, apparently unfastened by the mechanics, came loose on the circuit.
Williams’s Felipe Massa and McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button were all frustrated to have their final hot lap taken from them and be eliminated in eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth places.
Romain Grosjean and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr occupied fourteenth to sixteenth on the timesheets.
Qualifying one began with a damp circuit, and most drivers ran conservative installation laps on intermediate tyres to assess the conditions.
But the track proved substantially dry, the heavy rain having subsided during free practice three two hours earlier, sending the 14 wet-shod drivers back into the pits for supersofts.
One of the six drivers who gambled on the supersoft — though to minimum advantage given their competitors would have the full 18 minutes of the session to set a competitive lap — was Pascal Wehrlein, who came to grief at the end of his first lap.
The German’s Manor car snapped to the right when he crossed the conspicuous bump on the main straight, which was one of the few parts of the circuit still damp, and as the car re-gripped it speared itself into the left-hand barrier.
His car terminally damaged, Wehrlein guaranteed himself the back row on the grid with no time set.
Track officials attempted to dry the offending part of the circuit, raising the ire of many, and it was only more than 20 minutes later that the 21 remaining cars were allowed back onto the track.
The lengthy stoppage for the dampness was made all the more incongruent when a marshal truck stopped on the outside of the last corner near the pit entry in an obviously dangerous location to no response other than some presumably stern words over internal radio.
Qualifying became more dramatic from there, with few times being set as cars waited for optimal track conditions towards the end of the session, resulting in the return of chequered flag climax robbed from the sport under the defunct elimination qualifying system.
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were particularly happy to have seen off the rolling knock-out system when the team realised an energy recovery problem in the Briton’s car, preventing him from taking to the track after the red flag.
The world champion made it out onto the track with five minutes remaining, but the problem was obviously unrepaired, leaving him more than 100 horsepower down on his rivals, He returned to the garage defeated.
Hamilton was unable to set a lap time, and his five-place gird penalty for an unscheduled gearbox change relegates him to last place, behind Wehrlein’s stricken Manor
The Sauber, Renault , and Haas drivers, along wit Manor’s Rio Haryanto, sparred to avoid Q1 elimination thereafter.
Both Sauber cars and Haas’s Romain Grosjean escaped an early exit, leaving Kevin Magnussen in P17 ahead of Esteban Gutierrez, Jolyon Palmer, and Haryanto.