Force India dealt a blow against championship rival Williams with a confident qualifying performance that locked out the fourth row of the grid.
Sergio Perez will lead Nico Hülkenberg on Sunday’s grid in seventh and eighth place, and Jenson Button’s McLaren in P9 separates the pair from Williams drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.
Force India leads Williams in the constructors championship standings by a single point, and with millions of dollars the difference in prize money between third and fourth, Perez and Hülkenberg have much to be pleased about ahead of Sunday’s race.
“I think it’s a great result for the team first of all,” Perez said. “And a great qualifying for myself, so I’m very pleased.
“It’s going to be a tight battle in the race. A lot of factors play into the result, but I think we have the pace to be P4 [in the constructors] and to challenge Williams.
“McLaren was a surprise today, but I think in the long run they might struggle — but you never know with them.”
Hülkenberg’s mood was more tempered, but he thought little of the 0.17 gap to his teammate.
“I’m relatively happy,” he said. “I think probably seventh was the best possible for us as a team anyway.
“The beginning of quali was a bit happier, it was a better rhythm. Towards the end, especially in Q3, I had some trouble with two particular corners where the rhythm just slipped through my fingers a bit.”
With weather conditions likely to be extreme at the 3PM start, and with the new track surface evolving ferociously all the time, strategy will play a key role in deciding whether Force India is able to extend its points lead over Williams.
On this theme Hülkenberg set the cat amongst the pigeons, and when asked whether he thought Force India’s traditionally easy-on-the-tyres car could handle a one-stop race, he replied emphatically.
“Easy!” Hülkenberg exclaimed, before he left his media session.
Both Williams drivers were incredulous when they heard Force India could be considering a single-stop race.
“Yeah? Okay,” Bottas, P11 on the grid, mused. “I don’t think it’s going to be easy for us.
“To be honest for the whole weekend we haven’t even had a look into the one-stop, because it’s always been out of the question for us.
“It will be different from qualifying — it will be hotter than what we had in qualifying — so we’ll have to see. I doubt it’s possible for us, but let’s see what the guys will calculate overnight.”
Felipe Massa, who will line up tenth on the grid, was similarly disbelieving.
“Easy? I don’t know, I don’t think it will be easy,” he said. “Easy, I’m not sure, but it can be possible.”
The Brazilian wasn’t willing to venture whether he thought he could manage a one-stop strategy given his lack of experience on the hard compound mandatory race tyre.
“I didn’t try the hard. It will be a little bit of a surprise. Hopefully it can be a good surprise!”
With a significant margin separating Force India from the front-running three teams — the gap between Sergio Perez in seventh and Kimi Räikkönen in sixth is 0.7 seconds — Force India is likely to be engaged solely in outwitting Williams rather than progressing further up the field.
Williams, on the other hand, will first need to overcome Jenson Button’s McLaren before strategising an assault of Force India’s position, setting the scene for a fascinating strategic battle.