Just 0.077s separated the Silver Arrows as Hamilton edged out Rosberg with the fastest ever lap around the Bahrain International Circuit, as the second and final Q3 runs came down to a straight fight with their Ferrari rivals.
Daniel Ricciardo put Red Bull fifth, ahead of the Williams of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, and Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, the final Q3 runner.
Mercedes admitted that they had lacked pace in in the final practice session, but they ruled Q1 with Rosberg on 1m 31.325s from Hamilton on 1m 31.391s, on Pirelli’s supersoft rubber. Ricciardo jumped to third, ahead of Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen, a hair over three-tenths covering all six.
Pascal Wehrlein was the last of those to be eliminated in the opening phase, taking an excellent 16th for Manor with 1m 32.806s after increasing his pace at exactly the right moment, as Marcus Ericsson ran out of time in his Sauber for 17th on 1m 32.840s ahead of Sergio Perez’s Force India on 1m 32.911s, the Renaults of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer on 1m 33.181s and 1m 33.438s, Rio Haryanto in the other Manor on 1m 34.190s and Felipe Nasr’s Sauber on 1m 34.388s.
As darkness fell, Raikkonen led the two Mercedes out for Q2.
This time it was ‘Hammer time’, as Hamilton was top dog for the first time in the weekend on 1m 30.039s. Vettel got closest with 1m 30.406s after Rosberg locked up on his way to 1m 30.535s and Raikkonen managed 1m 30.559s to head fellow Finn Bottas on 1m 30.995s.
Daniil Kvyat was the first of those to be eliminated, with 1m 32.241s in his Red Bull. Then Jenson Button went, in 14th with 1m 31.998s for McLaren. Esteban Gutierrez’s 1m 31.945s left him 13th as Stoffel Vandoorne’s great F1 debut saw him outqualify Button with 1m 31.934s. Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen were also out, with 1m 31.816s and 1m 31.772s, while the only excitement came when Nico Hulkenberg’s late 1m 31.604s run saw him jump up from 11th to push Romain Grosjean’s Haas out of a fairy tale position in Q3.
So now it came down to Mercedes v Ferrari yet again, head-to-head for the pole. And this time it went down to the wire.
Raikkonen set the ball rolling with 1m 30.244s, before Vettel improved that to 1m 30.065s. Hamilton’s first effort was spoiled when he ran wide exiting Turn 15, so 1m 30.627s left him vulnerable as Rosberg reeled off 1m 29.897s to take temporary pole. All four, however, went for second runs -the only Q3 runners to do so.
This time Raikkonen came up short with 1m 30.397s but Hamilton nailed it with three purple sectors to jump from fourth and take pole with 1m 29.493s, Rosberg improving to 1m 29.570s to lock out the pole for the Silver Arrows even though Vettel also went quicker, with 1m 30.012s.
Ricciardo was fifth with 1m 30.854s, leaving the Williams duo sixth and seventh with Bottas pipping Massa by two-thousandths of a second. Hulkenberg was eighth.
Thus the provisional grid will line up: Hamilton, Rosberg; Vettel, Raikkonen; Ricciardo, Bottas; Massa, Hulkenberg; Grosjean, Verstappen; Sainz, Vandoorne; Gutierrez, Button; Kvyat, Wehrlein; Ericsson, Perez; Palmer, Haryanto; Nasr.
Magnussen must start from the pit lane after missing a weight check in FP2.