In Q1, the pack was shuffled as Sauber led a late charge onto the softer Pirelli tyre and were followed by everyone bar the Mercedes and Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg ended up heading the times with 1m 34.874s from the similarly shod Williams of Valtteri Bottas on 1m 34.934s and the other Force India of Sergio Perez on 1m 34.998s.
Down the back, it was very tight as McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen leapt from 19th to seventh right at the end and Romain Grosjean bumped Lotus team mate Pastor Maldonado into the drop zone, with 1m 36.654s just trumping the Venezuelan’s 1m 36.663s. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil was also right in there with 1m 36.840s, but the stewards are investigating an incident in which the German appeared to impede Grosjean.
Caterham and Marussia both showed that they have made significant progress since 2013, and were much closer to their lower midfield rivals. All four of their drivers went for soft tyres in Q1, and Kamui Kobayashi emerged fastest for Caterham with 1m 37.085s. Jules Bianchi was right on the Japanese driver’s tail with 1m 37.310s for Marussia. Marcus Ericsson was there too with 1m 37.875s in the second Caterham, with Max Chilton close on 1m 37.913s in the other Marussia.
Mercedes ruled Q2 as normality returned and everyone ran the soft tyres, with Rosberg just shading Hamilton this time as they dipped into the 1m 33s, while a late lunge to 1m 34.925s saved Kimi Raikkonen as he jumped to 10th. The man the Finn bumped out of Q3 contention was none other than the world champion, Sebastian Vettel, who could only manage 1m 34.985s.
The German, who struggled again with his Red Bull’s downshifts, could only make 11th place and has now been out-qualified by team mate Ricciardo twice in three races - as many times as Mark Webber managed during the whole of the 2013 season.
Hulkenberg also suffered in Q2, lapping his Force India in only 1m 35.116s after a rare mistake cost him dear. That left him ahead of Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Jean-Eric Vergne, on 1m 35.145s and 1m 35.286s respectively, Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber on 1m 35.891s and Grosjean on 1m 35.908s for Lotus.
Thus Q3 would be a shootout between Rosberg and Hamilton, Ricciardo, Perez, the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen, the McLarens of Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen, and the Williams cars of Bottas and Felipe Massa.
Rosberg set the pace from the start in Q3, and though he did not subsequently improve on his second run, Hamilton could not go any quicker after locking up into the first turn. The front row was quite safe for Mercedes, however, as closest challenger Ricciardo could only manage 1m 34.051s for third.
Bottas put his Williams fourth with 1m 34.247s, as Perez did a fine job for fifth for Force India with 1m 34.346s. A single run put Raikkonen sixth for Ferrari on 1m 34.368s, a time that Button just failed to beat for McLaren with 1m 34.387s. Massa was eighth in the second Williams on 1m 34.511s, and 1m 34.712s right at the end for Magnussen was sufficient to put the second McLaren ahead of Alonso, who posted 1m 34.992s in the other Ferrari.
With Ricciardo’s grid penalty from Malaysia taken into account, the grid will read: Rosberg, Hamilton; Bottas, Perez; Raikkonen, Button; Massa, Magnussen; Alonso, Vettel; Hulkenberg, Kvyat; Ricciardo, Vergne; Gutierrez, Grosjean; Maldonado, Sutil; Kobayashi, Bianchi; Ericsson, Chilton.