Hamilton took provisional pole from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 0.184 seconds after the pair’s first Q3 laps, but Hamilton’s second lap lowered the bar by almost three-tenths in his pursuit of the front row.
It looked like it was game over when Vettel dropped 0.2 seconds in the first sector of his reply lap, but the German made up time around the rest of the track to maintain an almost identical gap to the Briton, qualifying P2 just 0.186 seconds off the pace.
Hamilton said it was a particularly satisfying pole given yesterday’s (Apr 7) testing being called off due to poor weather.
“Today (Apr 8) was a real challenge for us,” Hamilton said. “We had to compile all of yesterday’s testing into the morning and hope that we hit the nail on the head with the balance of the car.
“We knew it was going to be close and that we’d have to pull out all the stops.
“It’s more exciting than ever for me because we’re really fighting these guys [Ferrari].
“It’s amazing, I think that’s what racing’s all about, and it pushes you to raise the bar every time you go out, which I love,” the Brit said after the qualifying session.
Vettel was again pleased Ferrari was close to the previously dominant Mercedes cars.
“Obviously it was a nice session, I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “I think if we could’ve been a bit quicker in the end, I could’ve enjoyed it more!
“I think our car is strong no matter what; it obviously depends on what these guys [Mercedes] are doing. Certainly we’ve seen in previous years in qualifying that they certainly seem to be able to get on top.”
The Ferrari pipped Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, by the narrowest of margins – 0.001 seconds – and the Finn said he was disappointed to not make the result a Mercedes one-two.
“It’s a real shame he managed to get between us,” Bottas said. “But, again, the race is tomorrow (Apr 9) and we’re starting as a team from first and third – it’s a good place to start.”
While the top three was close, Kimi Räikkönen finished a more distant fourth, the Finn explaining away his 0.462 gap to pole by complaining of poor grip and rear downforce.
That qualifying was again a finely-balanced fight suggests the Chinese Grand Prix could be as close a battle between Ferrari and Mercedes as the first race in Australia, with Vettel and Hamilton locked in a tactical fight for the win throughout.
Daniel Ricciardo finished fifth in what looks to be the best-of-the-rest qualifying slot. The Australian’s Red Bull Racing car was a significant 1.355 seconds off pole, but his consolation was that his best time was three-tenths faster than Felipe Massa could manage in his Williams in P6.
Nico Hülkenberg impressed again for Renault by qualifying seventh and just 0.6 seconds slower than Ricciardo’s Renault-powered RB13, demonstrating the French manufacturer’s impressive off-season progress.
Daniil Kvyat did will to qualify his Toro Rosso in ninth, while Lance Stroll completed a clean Q3 to qualify tenth, albeit 0.7 seconds slower than teammate Massa.
Qualifying is proving a close-fought affair in 2017, with the new midfield battling particularly fiercely. The fight to make it to the top 10 shoot-out was covered by just 0.6 seconds between fifth and twelfth place in China.
But while the fight at the front created a mouth-watering prospect for tomorrow’s race, notable was Antonio Giovinazzi, the young Italian filling in for the injured Pascal Wehrlein, who crashed his Sauber in Q1, disrupting a number of other drivers’ sessions.
The rookie lost control on the exit of the final corner, sending his car spinning across the track and clattering into the barriers.
The session was truncated, and as a result Max Verstappen was unable to finish his final qualifying lap for Red Bull Racing, leaving him P19, and Haas’s Romain Grosjean was also left in the bottom five.
The 2017 Chinese Grand Prix starts at 3pm Thai time.