Qualifying proved unexpectedly close after Mercedes performed so formidably during Friday practice, but Ferrari showed genuine pace after a promising preseason – so much so that the Italian team allowed itself to feel disappointed about starting second.
But the most disappointment was reserved for Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who crashed at turn 14 without setting a time in Q3, leaving him classified tenth with a potential gearbox penalty looming for race day.
Ricciardo looked unlikely to partake in the battle for pole in any case – his Red Bull Racing car was off the pace for most of the weekend, and teammate Max Verstappen could manage only fifth with a lap 1.3 seconds off pole.
Even without Red Bull Racing, however, the fight at the front went down to the wire – only an ace lap from Hamilton guaranteed the triple champion pole after a close-fought qualifying session.
“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far,” enthused the Briton. “I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone, and the guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.
“Valtteri did a fantastic job, being it is his first qualifying session with the team, and it’s great for us – for Mercedes. I’m looking forward to the race – obviously it’s close between us all.”
Sebastian Vettel pipped Bottas to second, and though the German said he lost time on his quickest lap, he didn’t believe it cost him pole.
In contrast to Hamilton and Vettel’s happiness was Bottas’s disappointment with his 0.293 deficit to pole.
“Third position is not ideal,” he said. “In general I'm not happy about the result.
“I didn't quite get any perfect laps in, so I'm not that satisfied – but tomorrow is the day that matters [and] in the race starts we seem quite strong.”
Kimi Räikkönen was a distant fourth in the second Ferrari, qualifying 0.845 seconds off pole, but the gap back to Max Verstappen in fifth was a comfortable 0.4 seconds.
Romain Grosjean continued his excellent weekend for Haas with a sixth on the grid almost 1.9 seconds slower than Hamilton, while Felipe Massa put his Williams in seventh with a lap 0.4 seconds slower.
Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat were separated by 0.025 seconds in eighth and ninth, while the crashed Ricciardo occupied 10th place on the time sheet.
Qualifying two was the first opportunity for the midfield to sift through itself, and the time sheet suggests the grid will be a distinct three-tier affair this season.
The gap from seventh to twelfth, which comprised cars from Williams, Haas, Toro Rosso, Force India, and Renault, was just half a second.
Another 0.5 seconds separated the new midfield from the backmarkers, which comprised Fernando Alonso’s McLaren in P13, Esteban Ocon’s Force India in P14, and Marcus Ericsson in P15.
Sergio Perez and Nico Hülkenberg were in with a shout of making the top 10, but both missed out by less than a tenth of a second.
Williams was under the pump in the early part of qualifying to prepare Lance Stroll’s car after the Canadian rookie crashed two hours earlier at the end of free practice three, and though the mechanics finished the job, Stroll could manage just the nineteenth fastest ahead of only Jolyon Palmer’s Renault.
Stoffel Vandoorne was unable to set a representative lap after his McLaren-Honda developed a fuel flow issue, confining him to eighteenth.
Kevin Magnussen’s first outing in Haas panned out poorly. The Dane qualified seventeenth, whereas teammate Romain Grosjean progressed into the second session in tenth.
Antonio Giovinazzi, who found himself with a Sauber race seat this morning after Pascal Wehrlein ruled himself out of the grand prix weekend due to a lack of race fitness, acquitted himself well after just 50 minutes of practice in the car.
The Italian almost pipped senior teammate Marcus Ericsson to make it through to Q2, but he made a critical mistake and ran wide in the final sector, handing the advantage to his teammate.