Max Verstappen started the top-10 shootout as favourite with provisional pole, but the super-short circuit lent itself to three runs than the usual two, and Valtteri Bottas duly took back the initiative with his second lap.
But George Russell, standing in for Lewis Hamilton as the world champion recover from COVID-19, was the man making the biggest gains. The Williams driver has been improving session by session during his Mercedes loan and had just 0.142 seconds to close with his final tour to contend for pole.
Bottas started his lap poorly, handing Russell the momentum, but the Briton didn’t have quite enough to get the job done, falling short by just 0.026 seconds.
In what has been billed as a shootout for the Mercedes seat in 2022, Bottas was relieved to get the job done.
“Good to see George locking the front row,” Bottas said. “It’s good to be on pole, I’m happy for that, but not one of my best qualifyings. I’m happy it was enough.”
Russell showed no signs of frustration in his narrow defeat, the first time in his F1 career he’s been beaten by a teammate on Saturday, and was pleased with his performance after receiving the call-up only three days earlier.
“Its’ been incredibly intense, so much to learn,” he said, the 22 year old better used to fighting near the bottom of the grid. “It felt really alien to begin with. It’s just a different way of driving, to be honest.
“We got it pretty much all together at the final lap. Gutted to miss out on pole by 20 milliseconds, but if you told me last week I was qualifying second on the grid, I wouldn’t have believed you.”
Verstappen was forced to again admit he didn’t have the car to take pole down to the wire, but the Dutchman was optimistic a different starting tyre choice could make the difference in the race.
“It’s interesting how that’s going to play out for us,” he said. “We have nothing to lose, so it’s better to have some fun tomorrow and see what we can do.”
Charles Leclerc had enough tyres for only one lap in Q3 and delivered a sensational fourth on the grid in his underpowered Ferrari.
Sergio Perez, having lost a podium last weekend to an engine failure, will have a second chance at the rostrum from fifth on the grid for Racing Point alongside AlphaTauri’s Daniil Kvyat in sixth.
Daniel Ricciardo qualified seventh for Renault ahead of McLaren’s Carlos Sainz in the battle for third in the constructors standings between those two teams.
AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly qualified ninth ahead of Racing Point’s Lance Stroll.
Esteban Ocon will start 11th for Renault alongside Red Bull Racing’s Alex Albon in 12th.
Sebastian Vettel qualified an ineffectual 13th for Ferrari ahead of Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi.
Lando Norris had his final flying lap in qualifying compromised by traffic and will resultantly line up 15th beside Haas driver Kevin Magnussen in 16th.
Nicholas Latifi qualified 17th and will line up alongside new Williams teammate Jack Aitken in 18th, the Briton substituting the Mercedes-bound Russell.
Kimi Raikkonen qualified 19th for Alfa Romeo ahead of Haas debutant Pietro Fittipaldi. The 24-year-old grandson of two-time world champion Emerson is standing in for the injured Romain Grosjean after the Frenchman’s fireball smash at last weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix.