Rosberg, who against expectations this season has proved the quicker of the two Mercedes drivers on Saturdays and won F1’s inaugural pole trophy two weeks ago, had trailed his title-leading team-mate Hamilton through most of practice and qualifying around the Yas Marina circuit but again impressively came to the fore as his championship rival wilted in the final reckoning.
Hamilton ended up 0.3s adrift of Rosberg and while he hung onto the second front-row berth – a second-place position which would be good enough for him to clinch his second world title on Sunday – the Briton was arguably fortune not to be demoted to third by the Williams of Valtteri Bottas after he made mistakes on each of his two Q3 hot laps.
While a lock-up at the penultimate corner on his first effort cost Hamilton provisional pole to Rosberg, a similar error under braking at the start of his decisive second put him on the backfoot. Bottas had already just fallen short of Hamilton’s benchmark before the Briton ended up consolidating his second place, but Rosberg’s impressively error-free 1:40.480 time still proved well out of reach.Williams once more locked out the second row with Felipe Massa fourth in the sister car.
“It was a scruffy qualifying from Lewis and he could have been just fifth,” observed Sky F1’s Martin Brundle. “He just over-drives the final part of qualifying – which isn’t what he used to do. It will have hurt his pride to be out-qualified so comprehensively”
Nonetheless, with the comfort of a 17-point title lead, Hamilton knows he can afford to follow Rosberg home on Sunday – although the controversial advent of double points means he still has little room for further error should the German win the race.
“This weekend is about the championship and not about pole position. It would have been great if somehow a Williams could have got between the two of us but that can always happen tomorrow,” admitted polesitter Rosberg.
Hamilton added: “I didn’t have the best of laps but it was still a good qualifying session, I enjoyed it. And as Nico said, tomorrow is about the championship.”
It’s still a championship crown that, on paper, should comfortably be Hamilton’s for the taking on Sunday given Mercedes’ race pace was also field-leading in Friday’s race simulations – with the Briton enjoying a distinct life-tyre advantage over Rosberg.
Still, qualifying showed that Williams – who ended up within 0.6s of the pole time in Q3 – could still threaten the all-conquering Silver Arrows over Sunday’s longer distance.
Behind the top four, qualifying proved a rather mundane and predictable affair with Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel continuing the two-by-two order by locking out row three for Red Bull. On his final qualifying session for the team, Vettel lost out to new star Ricciardo for the 12th time in 2014.
Ferrari-bound Vettel will be replaced by Daniil Kvyat and the Russian once more showed his promise by qualifying seventh for Toro Rosso.
Qualifying has habitually not been Jenson Button’s strongest card, but amid McLaren’s elongated deliberations over which of their current drivers stays on for next season, the 34-year-old delivered another timely reminder of his qualities by outqualifying Kevin Magnussen by three places in eighth. The result also meant that it is Button who wins the Saturday qualifying duel 10-9 at McLaren this season.
However, things had been going not quite as smoothly for Button at the start of Q2 when his McLaren engineer had to sheepishly ask him to return to the pits as they hadn’t filled his MP4-29 with sufficient fuel. “Are you serious?” was Button’s succinct response.
Meanwhile, in their own final qualifying session together as Ferrari team-mates, it was Kimi Raikkonen who outqualified the departing Fernando Alonso for the just the third time in his underwhelming campaign. The wider picture was a depressing one for the fallen Scuderia though: just ninth and tenth on the grid.
Meanwhile, at the foot of his order, British debutant Will Stevens did a commendable job on his F1 and Caterham debut by outqualifying half a second adrift of experienced team-mate Kamui Kobayashi.