Lewis Hamilton has scored his first pole position since the Australian Grand Prix, pipping teammate Valtteri Bottas to first place by just 0.040 seconds.
The Mercedes drivers were presented with an open goal when Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were persuaded to use the soft tyre on his final lap after Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo appeared to be finding more time on the slower tyre.
Ricciardo’s times were misleading, however, and though both Ferrari drivers managed to improve their laps, neither could do so enough to usurp the silver cars.
“Very close in qualifying, but very happy,” Hamilton said. “I needed this pole. I’ve not had a pole for a while.”
Bottas, who could have been leading the drivers championship were it not for a late-race puncture in Azerbaijan, said he was looking forward to battling for his first win of the season.
“I had really one chance in the last run,” he said. “It’s a shame, it’s only four hundredths, but the race is tomorrow.
“We will race hard. We’ll try to get a one-two.”
Though drivers starting on the front row at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya are statistically almost unbackable favourites, Ferrari has demonstrated strong race pace throughout the weekend, and Sebastian Vettel suggested there would be more to come from the Scuderia on Sunday.
“I was happy with the lap,” he said. “The first run in Q3 was not so good … but the last lap I was happy.
“We’re not entirely happy, but we expected Mercedes to be very strong. I think tomorrow should be an interesting race.”
Kimi Raikkonen qualified fourth, but the Finn was 0.3 seconds behind his teammate and fellow second-row started, while Max Verstappen led Daniel Ricciardo on the third row for Red Bull Racing.
The Australian triggered a switch to the soft tyre for some of the top-10 qualifiers when he threw caution to the wind after his first lap, prompting both Ferrari drivers and Fernando Alonso to follow suit.
The yellow-striped tyre initially showed signs of impressive pace after the first hot lap, but the pace didn’t last, and Ricciardo was left wondering whether the 0.002-second deficit to his teammate, who didn’t choose the soft tyre for his final lap, could have been closed with a conventional strategy.
Kevin Magnussen qualified seventh for Haas in a closely contested battle for the lower top-10 places.
The Danish driver kept McLaren’s Fernando Alonso at bay by just 0.045 seconds, and the Spaniard was less than half a tenth quicker than compatriot Carlos Sainz in his Renault. Romain Grosjean was a further half-tenth back in P10.
Pirelli’s tyres had behaved unusually all weekend in Spain, with the supersoft tyre offering little in the way of additional pace or grip over the soft compound.
Most cars competing for the top 10 therefore attempted to set their quickest times on the soft compound, meaning they would start the race on that same rubber were they to qualify in Q3.
Both Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing and Haas drivers made it through on soft tyres, as did Renault’s Carlos Sainz and McLaren’s Fernando Alonso.
Stoffel Vandoorne missed out, however, despite being on the correct tyre. The Belgian was 0.2 seconds slowed tan his teammate and qualified 11th.
Only Force India, Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Sauber’s Charles Leclerc stuck with the supersoft compound, but none of them made it into the top 10.
Gasly was 0.1 seconds slower than Vandoorne in 12, with Ocon and Perez in 13th and 15th sandwiching Leclerc in 14th.
Nico Hulkenberg lost what should’ve been the first of a series of fast laps to a fuel pressure problem that forced him back to the pits with minutes remaining in the session.
His sole hot lap was barely good enough to get him out of the elimination zone, but late laps by Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne relegated him back to P16 and out of qualifying.
Marcus Ericsson finished 17th, 0.6 seconds behind Hulkenberg and 0.8 seconds behind his Q2-bound teammate, Charles Leclerc.
Sergey Sirotkin outqualified Lance Stroll in 18th and 19th, making Williams the slowest team of the session.
Stroll ended his afternoon in ignominy, spinning backwards into the barrier at the outside of turn 12 on his final attempt, but Sirotkin is carrying a three-place grid penalty for a lap-one crash at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and wills tart last.
Brendon Hartley didn’t qualify after an enormous crash during free practice three left his car too damaged to be repaired in time to take part in Q1.