Lewis Hamilton was the class of the field in qualifying for tomorrow’s Chinese Grand Prix, claiming his first pole position behind the wheel of a Mercedes GP machine.
In only his third qualifying session for his new team, the former McLaren driver set the pace in the second phase of the session before repeating the effort with a fine lap to grab pole in a final qualifying phase that saw several drivers split on tyre strategies.
One of the most significant to do was championship leader Sebastian Vettel, the Red Bull Racing man choosing not to set a competitive lap time in Q3 which means he starts ninth on the grid with an open choice of tyres for the race.
The opening phase of qualifying saw the two cars of both Caterham and Marussia – again lead by the impressive Jules Bianchi for the latter - being joined in Q1 elimination by 2013 rookies Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) and Valtteri Bottas, the Finnish driver appearing to struggle with under-steer in his Williams and a moment at the second corner that meant he once again missed out on Q2.
Q2 produced drama involving Red Bull when Mark Webber was forced to stop his car at the penultimate corner after a fuel pressure problem meant he ran out of fuel following a lap that was only good enough for 14th, the Australian’s luck getting no better after the team’s Malaysian GP fallout as he was sent to the back of the grid after the session for the infringement – something Vettel and Hamilton fell victim to last season.
While the Bull’s horns were somewhat blunted, Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg stepped up to the plate, Hamilton almost being the first to dip under the 1m34s barrier to top Q2 and send a message as to what was to come in the final part of the session, Force India’s Paul Di Resta just missing out in 11th.
That final phase of qualifying was very tame viewing initially as only Vettel ventured out onto the circuit with no haste of setting a fast lap, before returning to an extremely quiet pit lane where it took until the final three minutes for drivers to head to the track for a late showdown.
Most drivers headed out on the softer tyre in a bid to snatch pole, where Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen set the provisional benchmark time of 1m34.761s, but with the two Mercedes drivers on quick laps behind them.
Rosberg came close but ran wide exiting the final corner, while behind him his team-mate Hamilton made no such mistake to come through with a 1m34.484s lap that secured pole position at Shanghai for a second straight year, Hamilton becoming the second British driver to do so in a Mercedes after Stirling Moss in 1955.
Raikkonen remained on the front row while Rosberg slipped to fourth behind the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso who got the better of his on-form team-mate Felipe Massa, Rosberg splitting the Ferrari’s in fourth while sixth went to the second Lotus of Roman Grosjean.
Daniel Ricciardo brilliantly equaled his best qualifying from Bahrain last year with seventh place on the grid, ahead of the drivers choosing different strategies as McLaren’s Jenson Button trundled around the circuit on the medium compound tyre he will start the race eighth on, Vettel and Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg not setting a lap but therefore having a free choice of rubber to start on tomorrow.
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m34.484s
2. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m34.761s + 0.277
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m34.788s + 0.304
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m34.861s + 0.377
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m34.933s + 0.449
6. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m35.364s + 0.880
7. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m35.998s + 1.514
8. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 2m05.673s + 31.189
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault no time
10. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari no time
11. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m36.287s + 1.209s
12. Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.314s + 1.236s
13. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1m36.405s + 1.327s
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m37.139s + 2.061s
15. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.199s + 2.121s
16. Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault 1m37.769s + 1.976
17. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari 1m37.990s + 2.197
18. Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth 1m38.780s + 2.987
19. Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth 1m39.537s + 3.744
20. Charles Pic Caterham-Renault 1m39.614s + 3.821
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault 1m39.660s + 3.867
22. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m36.679s + 1.601s*
*Webber sent from 14th to back of the grid for insufficient fuel after Q2.