Lewis Hamilton will start the inaugural Russian Grand Prix from the front of the grid after claiming his seventh pole position of the season at the Sochi Autodrom.
The Briton always seemed to have pace in hand over title rival Nico Rosberg and in the end he finished two tenths of a second up on his Mercedes team-mate.
However, Hamilton’s place in P1 was almost taken away from him in the final moments of the session as Williams Valtteri Bottas threatened to crash the party. The Finn recorded the fastest first and sector of the session to find himself in with a chance of a career first pole position but a scruffy final sector, in which he slid well wide in the final corner, meant the Williams man stayed in third place.
Jenson Button proved that the pace McLaren had shown on Friday was no fluke with the Briton claiming fourth spot on the grid six tenths down on Hamilton’s P1 time of 1:38.513.
Daniil Kvyat gave his home fans something to cheer about with an outstanding drive to fifth on the grid, the Toro Rosso driver delivering a sparkling final lap to claim a career-best starting position.
Kevin Magnussen was sixth for McLaren, although the Dane was set to be hit with a five-place grid penalty for the start owing to a gearbox change after final practice.
Quicker soft compound in Q1
In Q1 the bulk of drivers opted for the quicker soft compound Pirellis to get them through to the second segment, with only McLaren sending their drivers out on medium tyres for their first runs. Eventually they too swapped to the soft tyre and the battle began in earnest with, predictably, the Mercedes drivers setting the pace.
While Hamilton and Rosberg were comfortable in P1 and P2 respectively, one big name was struggling in the drop zone. With three minutes left in the session Felipe Massa was desperately trying to drag himself up from the back of the pack but his car was plagued with a fuel pressure issue. With no time to pit and fix the issue all the Brazilian could do was try to beat the backmarkers.
He managed to drag himself up to 17th but as the final times came in he was bounced down to 18th by a good lap from Caterham’s Marcus Ericsson.
Behind Massa, Kamui Kobayashi, Pastor Maldonado and Max Chilton were also eliminated.
At the front it was Hamilton from Rosberg, with Bottas third ahead of Button and Magnussen. Kvyat took sixth ahead of Raikkonen and Alonso.
Red Bull drivers out after Q2
The second segment again saw Hamilton set the pace. After Rosberg and Bottas had traded P1 laps early on, with Bottas in the ascendant, the championship leader emerged and blew the battle apart by registering a lap over half a second quicker than the Williams man. Rosberg soon bypassed the Finn too, closing to within three tenths of the dominant Hamilton.
Further back there was, again, a problem for one of the regular frontrunners. With two minutes left on the clock Sebastian Vettel was lodged in 15th place, 1.5s off the best time set by team-mate Ricciardo. In the end the champion’s final lap wasn’t quite good and despite finding a second over his previous run, his time of 1:40.052 was only good enough for P11.
Also eliminated behind the Red Bull Racing driver were, in P12 and P13, the Force Indias of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez, the Saubers of Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. Hulkenberg though is set to take a gearbox penalty so will drop back five places on the grid.
At the front, Hamilton again topped the timesheet, ahead of Rosberg, Bottas and Magnussen. Kvyat continued to put in impressive laps, easing through to the top-10 shoot-out in fifth place. Ricciardo was seventh for Red Bull Racing ahead of the Ferraris of Alonso and Raikkonen, with Vergne the last man through to Q3 in tenth for Toro Rosso.
Rosberg and Hamilton go at it in Q3
The final session saw Rosberg draw first blood, the German lapping in 1:38.946. Hamilton’s opening run was poor with five minutes to go the title leader was a second adrift of his team-mate.
Rosberg’s supremacy didn't last long. With the first lap of his final run Hamilton bypassed his team-mate with a time of 1:38.647 and then despite his engineer informing him that the track was worsening the Briton improved by another tenth. Rosberg had no response and his best lap of 1:38.713 was only good enough for P2.
As Hamilton guided his Mercedes back to pit lane on his cool down laps, Bottas was winding up. For two whole sectors it looked like Bottas might upset the form guide but in the end he pushed too hard through the final sector, ran wide through the final corner and settled for third.