In their wake Daniel Ricciardo took a valiant third place for Red Bull, a second down on Hamilton, as Sebastian Vettel’s woes continued when his RB10 rolled to a halt with suspected transmission problems as he left the pits at the start of Q3.
Q1 was but moments old when Pastor Maldonado lost control of his Lotus exiting Turn 3 and dumped it hard enough into the inner wall to remove the right-front wheel. There was a brief red flag delay while the black and gold car was trailered away.
Rosberg lost no time in going fastest, with 1m 26.764s. Hamilton was second on 1m 27.238s after sliding wide in Turn 5, while Vettel was third on 1m 27.958s. They, plus Ricciardo and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, all ran Pirelli’s hard compound; everyone else used the mediums. From the Australian in fourth place down to Sutil in 17th, 14 cars were bracketed within half a second…
Adrian Sutil was the first runner not to make Q2, his 1m 28.563s failing by a tenth to dislodge Lotus's Romain Grosjean from 16th place. At Marussia, Max Chilton out-qualified Jules Bianchi with 1m 29.586s to the Frenchman’s 1m 30.177s. The Caterhams had closed right up on the red and black cars, as Marcus Ericsson’s 1m 30.312s lap right at the end displaced team mate Kamui Kobayashi’s 1m 30.375s. It was the first time this season that the Swede had out-qualified the more experienced Japanese driver.
Rosberg again set the fastest time in Q2, using new mediums for his 1m 26.088s which just pipped Hamilton’s 1m 26.210s. Ricciardo gave Red Bull a boost with 1m 26.613s to Massa’s 1m 27.016s. But there was drama for Ferrari as home hero Alonso only just made the top 10 by 0.083s.
Neither of the Force Indias made Q3. Hulkenberg missed out by that narrow margin to the Spaniard with 1m 27.685s, complaining about his VJM07’s stability, while team mate Sergio Perez didn’t better 1m 28.002s for 12th. Daniil Kvyat couldn’t make it this time, either, taking his Toro Rosso round in 1m 28.039s as team mate Jean-Eric Vergne stayed in the garage. Esteban Gutierrez was 14th for Sauber with 1m 28.280s, and an undisclosed problem with his Mercedes’ power unit prevented McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen from setting a time. The Dane will start 15th.
Vettel’s stoppage created drama right at the start of Q3, as the Red Bull rolled to a halt at Turn 3 with the four-time world champion reporting a lack of drive. Hamilton, close behind, narrowly avoided Vettel’s slowing car, and the subsequent red flag - which flew for four minutes while the stricken RB10 was cleared away - meant that both Mercedes drivers had to abort their first flying lap runs.
Hamilton had been unhappy with the set-up of his car in Q1 and Q2 but was back on form to go fastest in 1m 26.288s on his first run, taking the initiative away from Rosberg who had managed 1m 26.561s. Alonso was initially third on 1m 27.563s until Ricciardo stole the place with 1m 26.602s. The rest planned for single runs only.
On his second run Rosberg snatched pole away from Hamilton with 1m 25.400s, but seconds later car 44 stopped the clocks in 1m 25.232s to settle the issue. The Briton - who entered the weekend without a pole or win to his name in Barcelona - eked everything he could out of his car and himself to set himself up for a possible fourth consecutive triumph.
Behind the silver cars Ricciardo couldn’t get close, but 1m 26.285s kept him firmly third. Valtteri Bottas had had a difficult weekend up until Q3, but right at the end it all came good for the Williams driver as he vaulted up to a surprise fourth on 1m 26.632s. Meanwhile, team mate Felipe Massa made a mistake that kept him down to 1m 27.402s and ninth place.
In between them, Grosjean’s presence in fifth for Lotus on 1m 26.690s was another big surprise, and pushed the Ferraris down to sixth and seventh. This time Kimi Raikkonen was faster than Alonso, but it was close: 1m 27.104s to 1m 27.140s.
Almost unnoticed, Jenson Button put his McLaren eighth on 1m 27.335s, as Vettel took 10th after failing to record a time.
Thus, with Vergne’s 10-place grid penalty for an unsafe release in FP3 applied, the grid will line up: Hamilton, Rosberg; Ricciardo, Bottas; Grosjean, Raikkonen; Alonso, Button; Massa, Vettel; Hulkenberg, Perez; Kvyat, Gutierrez, Magnussen, Sutil; Chilton, Bianchi; Ericsson, Kobayashi; Vergne, Maldonado.