Lewis Hamilton clinched pole position for Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix, the first time he will start from the very front of the grid here, his fourth consecutive top spot this season and, crucially in Hamilton’s fight with his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel put his Ferrari through an exemplary lap to knock Rosberg into third.
Hamilton set a time of 1min 32.571sec, four tenths clear of Vettel and six tenths ahead from Rosberg and importantly at a race where Ferrari’s form is very strong with Vettel in second and Kimi Raikkonen in fourth, it puts him the perfect position to dictate team strategy in response to their potential threat, especially given the Ferraris can work their rear tyres better and have shown even better race-pace potential.
It is another blow to Rosberg, who was somewhat fractious in his accusations of selfishness towards Hamilton after last week’s Chinese Grand Prix and another indicator that thus far this season he cannot match his team-mate’s qualifying or race pace. Any hope he had of being able to dictate strategy to his advantage has surely gone unless he can clear Hamilton, whom he trails by 17 points in the world championship, and Vettel by the first corner.
The pair battled in a gripping contest here last year when again Rosberg came off second best, unable to pass Hamilton in a race both drivers agreed had been a thriller, but there they were unchallenged at the front. With Ferrari very much in the mix this year on this type of circuit, and having failed to cope with Vettel’s pace and strategy when he won in Malaysia, Mercedes will have to consider the best way to ensure a win for one of their drivers and will likely favour Hamilton, should he turn his pole into a lead off the grid.
Rosberg had been quickest in the only practice session run under race conditions at night by fractionally over a tenth of a second but he could not match it when it mattered. Both drivers switched to the quicker soft tyres for the first session but it was Hamilton that could make the best of them. Then, when the pair set times in Q2 on the tyres with which they will start the race, Hamilton found another gear and was a full 1.2sec clear, that was a pace advantage that he might not quite have needed to pound from his race rubber.
On the first runs in the Q3 shootout on used tyres Hamilton maintained his advantage with three-tenths over Rosberg, who was also pipped into third by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo. It was the German that went out first for the final sprint on new boots but he could not pull together a smooth run and fell to Vettel, who was exploiting the very best from his Ferrari.
The Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa, who were in the mix with the Mercedes for the first two sessions and who are in a solid third place in terms of race pace, maintained that position and will begin from fifth and sixth, Ricciardo finished in seventh with Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India in eighth and Carlos Sainz Jr, who did a fine job to put his Toro Rosso into the top ten made an impressive ninth, with the Lotus of Romain Grosjean closing out the top 10.
Jenson Button’s difficult season continued, to Ron Dennis’s frustration, as the British driver was unable to even complete the first session. It is the third time over the weekend he has had a problem early in the run and since he was unable to set a time he will start from the very back of the grid. But there was some reason for cautious optimism as his team-mate Fernando Alonso put a McLaren through to the second session for the first time this season and qualified it in 14th place.
“I don’t what happened, it was similar to Friday when everything shuts down in the car, there was a loud bang and I got out, I assume it was some sort of electrical fault,” Button said. “Fernando got through to Q2 which is good for us. Obviously we’re frustrated but we are improving all the time.”
Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso went out in Q2, behind Alonso, the Sauber’s of Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson and the Force India of Sergio Pérez. Alongside Button, Red Bull’s Daniil Kyvat, who has also had a difficult weekend, was knocked out in Q1, as was the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado and the two Manor cars of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi.