Max Verstappen out-qualified Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo in fifth and sixth, with Sergio Perez next up for Force India. Haas were the surprise of the hour, with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez eighth and tenth respectively, split by the second Force India of Nico Hulkenberg.
Hamilton has never started from pole position here, and once again he was denied - Rosberg’s thirteen-thousandths of a second advantage equating to 82 centimetres on track - despite having taken the initiative earlier in Q3.
The Ferraris set the pace in Q1, with Vettel just acing Raikkonen, 1m 31.659s to 1m 31.684s. Rosberg was third on 1m 31.858, with a baulked Hamilton in fourth on 1m 32.218s. But where the red cars had used the soft Pirelli tyres, the silver ones had done their times on mediums.
Hulkenberg was fifth on softs with the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Ricciardo sixth and seventh on mediums.
The big mover was Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, who vaulted late into Q2 with 1m 32.796s, while Fernando Alonso just made it with 1m 32.819s, fractions ahead of team mate Jenson Button, whose 1m 32.851s left him 0.032s down in 17th for McLaren. He, of course, was using the Honda-powered squad’s older-specification powertrain.
Kevin Magnussen could not emulate Renault partner Palmer’s time, and was 18th on 1m 33.023s ahead of the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr on 1m 33.222s and 1m 33.332s, while Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein - carrying a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change - were on their tails in 21st and 22nd for Manor on 1m 33.353s and 1m 33.561s.
Rosberg lowered his time to 1m 30.714s on softs in Q2; Hamilton matched him in S1 and S3, but lost four-tenths sliding wide in the Degners on his way to 1m 31.129s, which left him just ahead of the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen as fifth-placed Verstappen rued traffic while matching the Finn.
The surprise was Gutierrez in seventh and Grosjean in eighth for Haas, as late improvements kept the Force Indias in Q3.
Out were the Williams duo, with Valtteri Bottas heading Felipe Massa, with 1m 32.315s to 1m 32.380s. Daniil Kvyat out-qualified Toro Rosso team-mate Carlos Sainz, as the latter spun in Turn 13 on his second run. The Russian did 1m 32.623s, the Spaniard 1m 32.685s. Right behind Sainz was Alonso on 1m 32.689s, as Palmer’s 1m 32.807s left him 16th.
So, as ever, it all came down to Q3. Did Hamilton have an answer to Rosberg? Could Red Bull get back ahead of Ferrari?
The answer to both questions was affirmative after the first runs. Ricciardo went fastest with 1m 31.240s, but that was beaten by Verstappen’s 1m 31.229s despite the latter’s talk of a loss of gear sync, then Raikkonen with 1m 31.184s before Rosberg went fastest again with 1m 0.953s. But then Hamilton went quicker still, with 1m 30.758s, as Vettel’s 1m 31.225s left him fourth. However you sliced it, the times were close…
They were closer still in the second runs, when Rosberg grabbed the advantage back from Hamilton by thirteen-thousandths of a second… Their respective laps were 1m 30.647s and 1m 30.660s, as Raikkonen kept Ferrari ahead of Red Bull with 1m 30.949s and Vettel also pushed ahead of them on time - but not on the grid because of his three-place drop from Sepang - with 1m 31.028s. Verstappen had to be content with 1m 31.178s, as Ricciardo went sixth with 1m 31.240s.
Further back, Perez claimed seventh for Force India with 1m 31.961s, a time later matched by Haas’ Grosjean, as team mate Gutierrez made it a fine day for the American team with 1m 32.547s for 10th. Between them, Hulkenberg was ninth in the second Force India on 1m 32.142s.
With grid drops for Vettel and Wehrlein taken into the account, the provisional grid thus lines up: Rosberg, Hamilton; Raikkonen, Verstappen; Ricciardo, Perez; Vettel, Grosjean; Hulkenberg, Gutierrez; Bottas, Massa; Kvyat, Sainz; Alonso, Palmer; Button, Magnussen; Ericsson, Nasr; Ocon, Wehrlein.