Lewis Hamilton has cruised to pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix ahead of error-prone Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton has looked on his A-game all weekend, and qualifying served only to confirm that the Briton had firm measure over Rosberg, the margin totalling 0.414 seconds by the end of the afternoon.
“A huge thank you to the team, who continue through the whole year to improve,” Hamilton said relievedly. “This year the car is obviously better, but great work done coming into this weekend and after the last few weeks with Nico [Rosberg’s] wins.
“Today the car felt fantastic. I really enjoyed the lap — it could’ve been faster!”
For Rosberg, who leads the championship by eight points after winning the previous three grands prix, the situation could have been much worse — his first lap in Q3 was good enough for just fifth.
The German made a mistake at turn six and locked up heavily at the final hairpin on his first attempt, and though his second attempt was tidier, another mistake at the difficult last turn sealed his fate.
“Lewis’s lap was very quick, so it was always going to be difficult,” Rosberg conceded. “I could’ve come close, but I made a mistake in the last corner — something wasn’t going right at that last corner.
“Second place, I’ve got to live with that now, but as we know from this year, second place doesn’t mean that victory isn’t possible tomorrow — we’ve seen that several times.”
Rosberg’s last lap never looked threatening, but his final error put at risk what should have been a far easier front row start by dropping him into the clutches of Max Verstappen, who qualified little more than one tenth of a second further back.
Verstappen has been quick all weekend — even despite a dizzy spell in the heat between Friday free practice sessions one and two — and will critically start from the cleaner side of the gird on the newly-laid tarmac, a potential advantage over Rosberg.
“I think the whole weekend has been quite positive for me,” Verstappen said. “We made some changes after Singapore and they seemed to work.”
Daniel Ricciardo was 0.04 seconds off his teammate’s pace and more than half a second off Hamilton’s pole time, but Red Bull Racing drivers appear to have superior race pace compared to the Mercedes pair.
Both have saved a set of soft tyres for the grand prix compared to Mercedes, teasing a potentially spectacular and strategic battle for the win.
Ferrari attempted to likewise save soft tyres early in qualifying, but neither Sebastian Vettel nor Kimi Räikkönen were comfortable with their pace and were forced to go back on their strategy and use the precious faster rubber.
Vettel was the faster of the two, qualifying two-tenths behind the Red Bull Racing cars and 0.05 seconds ahead of Räikkönen, locking out the third row for the Scuderia.
Force India scored an emphatic victory in its battle against Williams for fourth in the constructors championship by seizing the fourth row for itself.
Sergio Perez, who was rumoured shortly before qualifying to have finalised his contract to keep him at the team for next season, was 1.4 seconds off the pace — 0.7 seconds behind the leading three teams — and 0.2 seconds ahead of teammate Nico Hülkenberg.
Jenson Button gave McLaren a boost of confidence when he qualified ninth and on merit ahead of Felipe Massa’s Mercedes engine-equipped Williams car.
Button’s teammate, Fernando Alonso, set a token lap at the very beginning of qualifying to start from 22nd on the grid after accepting grid penalties for installing new engine parts above his maximum allocation of five per season.
The concluding laps of qualifying’s second segment were a tense affair, with Williams, McLaren, and Force India all on the elimination bubble.
Felipe Massa, who had the seventh-fastest time before the final runs, was held in his garage while the slower nine drivers attempted to beat his time.
Ultimately none could, though Jenson Button put his McLaren 0.009 seconds away in eighth, just ahead of both Force India cars.
Valtteri Bottas was the loser of the fight. The Williams car, despite being equipped with the Mercedes engine around a power-hungry track, was nudged into P11.
The Haas cars, with Romain Grosjean leading Esteban Gutierrez, qualified P12 and P13, while Kevin Magnussen behind them held back Toro Rosso duo Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz.
Fernando Alonso knew before he took to the track that he wouldn’t be competing for the further segments of qualifying due to a series of power unit penalties.
Alonso adopted Honda’s latest specification power unit for practice — though he is using an older version for qualifying and the race — putting him well above his maximum allocation of five, earning him a 45-place grid penalty and consigning him to last on the grid.
The Spaniard’s elimination, after setting a time to meet the 107 per cent requirement, meant one of the usual backmarker cars had an open goal to progress to Q2.
Renault’s Kevin Magnussen seized his chance, but his teammate, Jolyon Palmer, wasn’t so lucky — the Englishman locked up heavily at the last turn and missed the cut by 0.3 seconds, though he attributed his lap to bad set-up and poor driving.
Palmer will start the race from P19 behind both Sauber drivers, with Marcus Ericsson ahead of Felipe Nasr, and ahead of both Manor drivers, with Esteban Ocon outqualifying Pascal Wehrlein for the first time this season.