A closely-fought Q3 session saw Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel take third, four-tenths off Rosberg, ahead of the Red Bulls of Daniil Kvyat and Daniel Ricciardo, and the Williams of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa. Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen, crowd idol Sergio Perez and Force India team mate Nico Hulkenberg completed the top ten.
At the start of the hour, for some while Hamilton had the fastest Q1 time with 1m 20.808s, set on the medium Pirelli tyres, a tenth ahead of Rosberg, but that was beaten at the end first by Vettel on softs with 1m 20.503s, then by Rosberg on softs on 1m 20.436s. He went off trying to improve further on that.
It was a tough session for McLaren. Fernando Alonso - who will start from the rear of the grid thanks to a 15-place drop for engine and gearbox changes - was the first faller with 1m 21.779s, while Jenson Button was last as he did not even run, after the team were unable to resolve an engine signal problem on his car from FP3.
With Button already carrying engine change penalties of at least 30 grid places, McLaren knew his failure to participate would make little difference to his starting position. He will now race at the stewards’ discretion, having failed to set a time within the Q1 107 percent qualifying requirement.
Between the Woking cars came Felipe Nasr’s Sauber on 1m 21.788s, then Alexander Rossi ahead of Marussia partner Will Stevens, 1m 24.136s to 1m 24.386s. Stevens lost time early on as a sticking throttle was rectified.
Q2 saw spits of rain and Hamilton ducking beneath 1m 20s, with 1m 19.829s on the softs. But Vettel’s 1m 20.045s for Ferrari sounded alarm bells as Rosberg was third on 1m 20.053s. Each of them shared a fastest sector time.
Further back, late improvements for Massa and Verstappen bumped the latter’s team mate Carlos Sainz and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. Sainz was thus 11th on 1m 20.942s, Grosjean 12th on 1m 21.038s. His Lotus team mate Pastor Maldonado was next on 1m 21.261s, while Marcus Ericsson was 14th for Sauber on 1m 21.544s.
At the back, Kimi Raikkonen had brake problems and a spin in Turn 1 on his way to 1m 22.494s on mediums, and the Finn also takes a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change.
Hamilton and Rosberg led the cars out for Q3. This time Rosberg aced his partner on both of their opening laps, with 1m 19.690s to 1m 20.120s, then 1m 19.480s to 1m 19.668s, Vettel was still with them, on 1m 19.850s.
On the final runs nobody improved bar the Force India drivers, who hadn’t run earlier. The leading runners’ tyres were past their peak, and the track conditions were changing under the darkening sky. Rosberg, however, was still fractionally quicker than Hamilton, who went wide over the kerb entering the stadium on his final effort.
Thus, after the penalties are applied, the provisional grid will line up thus: Rosberg, Hamilton; Vettel, Kvyat; Ricciardo, Bottas; Massa, Verstappen; Perez, Hulkenberg; Sainz, Grosjean; Maldonado, Ericsson; Nasr, Rossi; Stevens, Raikkonen; Alonso, Button.