The Silver Arrows’ closest rival was Nico Hulkenberg, 1.188s down on Hamilton, but it was mixed fortunes for Vijay Mallya’s team, with Sergio Perez repeating Daniel Ricciardo’s Friday accident at Turn 15 as the chequered flag fell, causing heavy damage to the rear of his car.
Ricciardo was fourth for Red Bull, ahead of the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, Perez, and Max Verstappen in the second Red Bull. McLaren’s Jenson Button, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen completed the top ten.
Williams were in the wars. Valtteri Bottas did not set a time after his car sustained some serious damage to its right sidepod early in the session after the Finn kicked up a loose cabling cover in the track surface coming into the pits.
Meanwhile, team mate Felipe Massa was lucky to get away with thumping the right-rear of his FW38 against the wall after losing the back end through Turn 15.
After the first 15 minutes it was a Red Bull one-two, with Ricciardo on 1m 46.685s on supersoft tyres, from the similarly-shod Verstappen on 1m 46.848s.
Mercedes soon took over, however, with Rosberg going fastest on supersofts with 1m 45.558s. Hamilton’s response fell short at 1m 45.675s, then as he was busy making a beautiful catch after a big slide at Turn 16, Rosberg chipped down to 1m 45.435s.
At this stage Ricciardo was third, Verstappen eighth; Ferrari were nowhere with Vettel was 17th, Raikkonen 19th.
Things started to get interesting after the half hour mark. Raikkonen pitted, complaining of lack of power out of the corners, but suddenly there was Vettel, third with 1m 45.694s, right in Mercedes territory for the first time this weekend, just 0.259s off Rosberg. Hamilton, meanwhile, eased down to 1m 45.543s, albeit without looking as dominant as he had yesterday. Massa jumped up to fourth with 1m 46.510s, but Bottas in the other Williams wasn’t going anywhere, thanks to his car’s damage.
As Ricciardo got within 0.185s of Rosberg with a third-fastest lap of 1m 45.620s, and Verstappen improved to 1m 45.901s, it was time for Mercedes to show their hand. With Hamilton still in the pits, Rosberg duly delivered with 1m 44.610s on a brand-new set of supersofts, putting him 0.933s ahead of his team mate and a second clear of the leading Red Bull. And that included a big slide like Hamilton’s…
The world champion seemed all over the place in the final minutes, including an off at Turn 1, but right at the end he turned it all on again on his now aging tyres to go fastest with 1m 44.352s, 0.258s quicker than Rosberg and 1.188s better than the impressive Hulkenberg, who hauled his Force India round in 1m 45.540s to head Ricciardo and Vettel, who trimmed down slightly to 1m 45.630s.
Perez was sixth on 1m 45.735s, but his efforts to improve on that saw him do ‘a Ricciardo’ in Turn 15, to the serious detriment of his VJM09’s rear end.
Button continued McLaren’s strong form with eighth fastest time of 1m 45.954s, just behind Verstappen and ahead of Kvyat on 1m 45.981s for Toro Rosso, as Raikkonen jumped to 10th on 1m 46.024s after his Ferrari’s power problem had been resolved.
Mercedes might have reasserted themselves, but qualifying still promises to be a tense, and, in the upper midfield at least, extremely close affair.