With heavy rain making conditions treacherous, it was Hamilton who came to the fore, producing a scintillating lap to edge Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel for P1 and pull level with the great Jim Clark as Britain’s best qualifier.
The rain began falling heavily around 35 minutes before the start of qualifying, and so it was no surprise when the scheduled start of Q1 at 16.00 was initially delayed 15 minutes, and then again in 15-minute chunks, until conditions were finally deemed acceptable for a start at 16.50. As the two Mercedes led the field out of the pit lane, further rain was expected.
After their problems on Saturday morning in FP3, McLaren gambled on full wet tyres, but that soon proved to be a mistake and both Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen rushed into the pits for intermediates.
Up front Nico Rosberg edged out team mate Hamilton with 1m 57.183s to 1m 57.202s. Vettel, meanwhile, did well to jump up to third on 1m 57.654s, once a car problem was fixed by a systems reset in the pits.
As the rain picked up, Pastor Maldonado was the first one to fail to make Q2, lapping his Lotus in 2m 02.074s. Adrian Sutil struggled to 18th in the Sauber on 2m 02.131s, with Jules Bianchi twitching his way round in 2m 02.702s for Marussia. Kamui Kobayashi struggled to 2m 03.595s for Caterham as Max Chilton’s efforts yielded 2m 04.388s in the second Marussia. Marcus Ericsson’s attempt to improve on 2m 04.407s in the second Caterham ended when he spun into the barriers before collecting an advertising hoarding, bringing out the red flag with 35s seconds of the session left to run. The Swede was unharmed though his car suffered frontal damage.
The rain continued to fall in between sessions, but Q2 went ahead and this time everyone bar the Ferrari pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso and Williams’ Valtteri Bottas went for wets. That was the wrong choice, and when Alonso collided with Daniil Kvyat at Turn 9 while inbound for a tyre change, the session was red flagged so that debris from the Toro Rosso’s displaced front wing could be cleared away. The Spaniard’s left front suspension was damaged as he clashed with the Russian, but a great effort by Ferrari got him out moments after the session resumed at 17.26 after a six-minute stoppage. Bottas boldly stayed on inters before changing to wets.
This time Hamilton was fastest on 1m 59.041s from Vettel on 1m 59.399s and Rosberg on 1m 59.445s, while further back the shoot-out for 10th saw Sauber’s Esteban Gutierrez (2m 02.369s) and Kvyat (2m 02.351s) disappointed as Jean-Eric Vergne grabbed the crucial place with 2m 02.096s in the other Toro Rosso. That was a tantalising two-thousandths of a second off Magnussen, who just made Q3 after spinning into the gravel at Turn 15.
As Kvyat thus took 11th and Gutierrez 12th, Felipe Massa was only 13th for Williams on 2m 02.460s from Sergio Perez’s Force India on 2m 02.511s and Bottas on 2m 02.756s. Romain Grosjean at least got Lotus through to Q2, but spun trying to better 2m 02.885s.
In the final shoot-out, McLaren again gambled, but Magnussen soon reported that it was too wet for intermediates. Button, however, stayed on them. That was to prove unwise.
Raikkonen set the initial pace for Ferrari with 2m 01.218s but Hamilton soon beat that with 1m 59.431s which would prove good enough for the pole as conditions worsened a little. Rosberg moved to second with 2m 00.180s before Vettel moved ahead of him with 1m 59.486s. The two leading positions thus settled, the focus turned to the fight between Alonso and Rosberg for third as they both switched, like Raikkonen and Hamilton, to new wets. The Spaniard appeared to have got the job done with 2m 00.175s, but right at the end the German edged back ahead with 2m 00.050s.
Fifth place went to Daniel Ricciardo on 2m 00.541s in the second Red Bull, as Raikkonen slipped back to sixth. Nico Hulkenberg again starred for Force India with 2m 01.712s for seventh, as Magnussen made the best of a messy day with 2m 02.213s for eighth. Vergne continued his good work with 2m 03.078s for ninth for Toro Rosso, with the unhappy Button doomed to 10th place from the start, unable to better 2m 04.053s as the crossover point for intermediates never came.
After qualifying the stewards determined that Bottas had impeded Ricciardo during Q2 and handed the Williams driver a three-place grid penalty. The grid will line up thus: Hamilton, Vettel; Rosberg, Alonso; Ricciardo, Raikkonen; Hulkenberg, Magnussen; Vergne, Button; Kvyat, Gutierrez; Massa, Perez; Grosjean, Maldonado; Sutil, Bottas; Bianchi, Kobayashi; Chilton, Ericsson.
Whether it’s wet or dry on Sunday, it promises to be a fascinating and tightly fought race.