Lewis Hamilton took his third consecutive pole position of the season as he pipped Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg to the top spot in China by the slimmest of margins.
Hamilton has looked flawless all weekend and carried that form into qualifying, though he was made to sweat in Q3 when Rosberg crossed just 0.042s down on his 1:35.782 benchmark. The Mercedes front-row lock out was expected, with Ferrari having to turn its attention from the Silver Arrows to the Martini-liveried Williams in qualifying. Having had a quiet practice, Williams was back in the hunt for the second row and looked to have secured it behind Mercedes, only for Vettel to snatch third with his last run.
One important consideration was tyres, given Mercedes’ costly decision to use a set of prime tyres in Q1 in Malaysia – a decision which hampered the team in the race. There was no repeat this time around as Mercedes set the Q1 times it needed on medium tyres while all its rivals, including Ferrari, used fresh softs. It means Mercedes has saved a set of soft tyres for the race, something which may be crucial for strategy and nullifying the threat from Ferrari on Sunday.
Having had such a promising weekend on his longer runs, Kimi Raikkonen had to settle for sixth position, meaning the Finn will have to dispatch the Williams early if he wants to take the fight to Mercedes. Behind that, Daniel Ricciardo qualified seventh ahead of Romain Grosjean, while the Sauber’s of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson rounded off the top ten.
Daniil Kvyat was the biggest-name casualty in Q2 as he dropped out of the session in 12th. Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz also failed to make it through the session, while Sergio Perez did well just to make the top 15 in the Force India.
McLaren had high hopes of making Q2 – and had even finished two tenths off 10th in FP3 – but both Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso dropped out of the first qualifying session. There was only 0.004s between the two former world champions, who finished two tenths off the time required to make it into the next session. It will be a blow for McLaren after talking up the visible progress it has made since the Malaysian Grand Prixm but the gains they have made might be more obvious in Sunday’s race. Nico Hulkenberg was the other man to drop out of Q1 despite having been quicker than team-mate Perez in the morning session.
Unsurprisingly the Manors finished at the foot of the standings, the first time both its drivers have completed a qualifying session. Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi qualified within the 107% mark required to race on Sunday.
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Lewis Hamilton topped both Friday practice sessions ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix weekend, but Ferrari again showed signs of being able to challenge Mercedes over a race distance.
Following Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Malaysia, the big question heading to China was whether Ferrari could sustain its challenge to Mercedes’ F1 hegemony. The times in first practice suggested the pendulum had swung back in favour of the world champions, but in second practice Kimi Raikkonen offered hope of a genuine battle emerging for the second race in a row.
Raikkonen’s quick lap was within 0.5s of Hamilton’s best, but it was the long-run pace that looked most impressive as his Ferrari proved quick and consistent on the medium tyres. Hamilton said afterwards that his medium tyres “did not feel too good”, but the significantly quicker soft compound looks likely to be the tyre of choice if degradation of the front left is kept under control.
Both Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg failed to impress on their hot laps, with Vettel 0.7s off team-mate Raikkonen and Rosberg running wide at the final corner on his soft tyre attempt. As a result Rosberg was a full second off the pace of Hamilton on a weekend when he needs to reassert himself in the in-team battle at Mercedes.
The laps of Vettel and Rosberg allowed Daniel Ricciardo to go third fastest in the Red Bull, although he was still over a second off Hamilton. Ricciardo was running a low-drag rear wing on the RB11, which helped mask the power deficit of the Renault engine but needs to be balanced against the extra strain the reduced downforce will put on the tyres. He was 0.4s quicker than team-mate Daniil Kvyat running the old rear wing, whose session came to an end in the barriers when his brakes failed at Turn 14.
Valtteri Bottas was seventh fastest for Williams while team-mate Felipe Massa failed to set a representative time after losing his car under braking for Turn 14. Massa was on his quick lap when the rear of the Williams stepped out under braking and grazed the barrier, knocking off the front wing endplate. The accident left Massa 17th by the end of the session and that allowed Jenson Button to creep into the top 10 with a time two seconds off Hamilton’s best. Fernando Alonso was another 0.5s shy of Button in 12th, but the overall performance was positive for McLaren and Honda as they up the performance of the MP4-30 again this weekend.
The session also had a bizarre and unwelcome interruption when a spectator managed to gain access to the pit straight and sprint across the breadth of the track to the pit wall as a Force India exited the final corner. He was quickly apprehended by marshals and passed on to the police, but the intrusion will be a concern for the race organisers.
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