England summer arrived in all its glory just as qualifying started, dousing the circuit in rain and intensifying in time for the pole shootout, though the weather subsided once the cars returned to the track for Q3.
It turned the competition for top spot from a pursuit of the perfect lap into a battle to be the last driver to set a lap time to take advantage of the drying circuit.
Ferrari and Red Bull Racing swapped quickest times over the 12 minutes, but on their final laps both Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen made crucial mistakes, the former spinning and the latter logging a messy second sector.
Only Sainz’s lap was clean enough to take top spot, and without enough time for Leclerc or Verstappen to respond, pole position belonged to the Spaniard for his 150th start.
“In the end I put together a lap that I thought was nothing special,” he said. “Just put it on the board and see how it is, and it was pole position, which was a bit of a surprise.
“It was a good lap, but I was struggling a lot with the standing water on the intermediate… it was very easy to get snaps and lose the lap.
Still without a win despite his growing collection of podiums ‒ he’s just two more rostrum appearances away from the all-time record for most podiums without wins ‒ Sainz said he was confident victory could be achieved from pole.
“The pace has been there all weekend,” he said. “If I base myself on my [free practice] pace, then we should be in a good position to hold onto it.”
Max Verstappen’s best lap was just 0.072 seconds slower than Sainz, and the Dutchman said qualifying on the second row was a decent result for the conditions.
“It was quite a tricky qualifying with the rain,” he said. “Overall the car was working really well.
“To be on the front row is very good for us. We have a good race car, I think, in the dry and in the wet.”
Charles Leclerc completed the top three but admitted he wasn’t sure how his race would pan out from there.
“The strategy is a bit mixed between one and two stops,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see who goes for the one stop or the two stop.”
Sergio Perez was fourth in the sister Red Bull Racing car, though he was 0.6 seconds off the pace.
Mercedes’s upgrades culminated in a fairly underwhelming fifth for Lewis Hamilton at more than a second adrift, with the team’s technical director saying afterwards that he expected a lot more from the new parts.
Lando Norris was less than a tenth slower on a strong afternoon at his home race, qualifying sixth.
Fernand Alonso showed some formidable pace at times throughout qualifying but his run times saw him end up seventh ahead of George Russell’s second Mercedes.
Zhou Guanyu was ninth for Alfa Romeo ahead of Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, who will start an equal career best 10th on the grid for just the second time in his career.
Pierre Gasly outqualified Valtteri Bottas and Yuki Tsunoda, but the biggest knockouts of Q2 were Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon, who were caught out by the intensifying rain through the qualifying segment.
The deteriorating conditions meant neither was able to improve on their lacklustre opening lap, condemning them to 14th and 15th on the grid.
Thai driver Alex Albon will line up 16th on the grid despite running the updated Williams aero package, which Q3-bound teammate Nicholas Latifi didn’t have the benefit of.
Albon was frustrated with the team’s tyre strategy, which he said didn’t give him enough temperature in his wet-weather tyres because he was instructed to alternate between fast and slow laps.
Haas and Aston Martin split the final positions on the grid, with Kevin Magnussen beating Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher starting ahead of Lance Stroll.