However, there was disappointment for team-mate and Spanish GP winner Max Verstappen as a crash in Q1 leaves him 21st on the grid.With less than two tenths covering the top four after FP3, the stage was seemingly set for a similarly competitive fight for pole position, with Ricciardo and Red Bull very much in the mix as the RB12 – coupled to the upgraded Renault engine – demonstrated its nimble strength around the street circuit.
And so it proved when it mattered, Ricciardo unleashing the car’s full ability in Q3 on the new ultra-soft tyre, the pace of the Australian through the tricky final sector accounting for much of the three tenths margin he commanded over Rosberg in second place.
Indeed, Rosberg and also Lewis Hamilton seemed to have the matching of Ricciardo in sectors one and two, but would flounder in the final sector to give second best to Red Bull, the team celebrating its first pole position since 2013.
Only the third occasion since the beginning of 2014 that a Mercedes has not started from pole position, Rosberg will still be pleased to start ahead of Hamilton on an eventful day for the defending champion as yet more technical issues crept in.
Getting on track late after a fuel pressure issue halted him at the end of the pit lane initially, Hamilton was forced to build up to his best lap, but despite setting a best time in sector one, would lose out by the end of the lap to place him third.
Quickest in FP3 but barely a factor in qualifying, Sebastian Vettel will start in fourth place with a lap almost a second slower than the revitalised Red Bull, while Nico Hulkenberg delivered Force India’s best starting position of the year with a committed run to fifth.
Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth, but will start a provisional 11th once he has taken his gearbox penalty, lifting Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez, Daniil Kvyat and Fernando Alonso up a position between sixth and ninth.
Qualifying began with a bang when Felipe Nasr suffered a dramatic engine blow on his Sauber, prompting an early red flag, but it was Verstappen’s crash out of the session that dominated the headlines.
The Spanish Grand Prix was on a quick final flier when he clipped the inside wall at turn 15, breaking the suspension on his Red Bull and crashing into the outside barrier, without harm. He will start 21st.
Elsewhere, Williams failed to progress beyond Q2, with Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa 11th (10th) and 14th, with Esteban Gutierrez and Jenson Button between them.