Q3 started on a wet track which required intermediate tyres, but ended on a rapidly drying one, forcing drivers to switch back to slick rubber. Kimi Raikkonen ended up fifth for Ferrari, ahead of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Williams’ Felipe Massa.
A dry Q1 saw Hamilton come out fighting, setting the track’s fastest-ever times of 1m 07.014s and then 1m 06.947s before Vettel jumped to second with 1m 07.030s and then Rosberg, his car brilliantly repaired in time by Mercedes after his FP3 crash (with help from Hamilton’s mechanics too), slammed in a 1m 06.690s and then improved that to 1m 06.516s just after Vettel had reduced his time to 1m 06.761s. Great stuff.
Sergio Perez was forced to retire his Force India early on with a suspected rear suspension failure, and with just under two minutes remaining, Daniil Kvyat showed how tricky the kerbs can be here. The Russian ran wide on the exit to Turn 8, and his oversteering Toro Rosso broke its right rear suspension as it went over the punishing undulations.
The Toro Rosso slithered down towards the apex of Turn 9, where Kvyat was lucky to avoid hitting the pit entry wall sideways on, before bouncing uncomfortably over his own battered wheels and stopped in the run-off area.
After a brief red-flag period the session was restarted with just 1m 44s left on the clock, and there was immediate drama as Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso’s engine appeared to blow up. Hulkenberg improved, pushing the startling Pascal Wehrlein from ninth to a nonetheless hugely impressive 10th in the Manor, but that didn’t change anything for the final six.
Kevin Magnussen and Renault team mate Jolyon Palmer failed to improve and that left them 17th and 18th on 1m 07.941s and 1m 07.965s respectively. Rio Haryanto improved to 1m 08.026s for Manor to take 19th ahead of Kvyat on 1m 08.409s, with Marcus Ericsson narrowly heading Sauber partner Felipe Nasr, 1m 08.416s to 1m 08.446s.
As the remaining drivers prepared for Q2, the risk of rain increased. Eight minutes was the ETA.
Cleverly, Ferrari ran Vettel and Raikkonen on supersoft tyres, meaning they can use them to start their races. Vettel was a strong third fastest on 1m 06.602s, Raikkonen seventh on 1m 06.940s. Red Bull ran Ricciardo and Verstappen on ultrasofts to begin with, but on supersofts both improved, to 1m 06.840s and 1m 06.866s respectively, leaving them fourth and fifth and thus able to use them at the start too.
Hamilton this time aced Rosberg, with 1m 06.228s to 1m 06.403s, but Mercedes gambled too long on making the same switch from ultrasofts to supersofts. Rosberg quit straight away as the first rain spots fell with four minutes left; Hamilton continued and was only a tenth down on Rosberg’s best sector one time, but by sector two he was 10 seconds off. That has thus set up a fascinating strategic battle for the race. Mercedes must start on the fragile ultrasofts, while their four strongest rivals can use the much more durable supersofts and thus run longer opening stints.
Jenson Button slipped off the road in Turn 3 but still made Q3 for McLaren, by six-thousandths from Esteban Gutierrez on 1m 07.578s for Haas. Next came the impressive Wehrlein on 1m 07.700s in Manor’s best performance of the year, and Romain Grosjean on 1m 07.850s for Haas. Fernando Alonso had one moment reported zero rain and pitted his McLaren, then regretted it when it arrived suddenly and left him 14th on 1m 08.154s.
Neither Sainz nor Perez was running, so they took 15th and 16th.
Q3 thus began in slippery conditions, with everyone on intermediate tyres. It became a session of two parts.
In both, lap times fell faster than you could write them down, but as everybody sped pitward with only minutes remaining, to switch to ultrasofts for the drying track, the order was Hamilton, Button, Ricciardo, Rosberg, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Vettel, Massa, Bottas and Verstappen.
Hulkenberg was the first to switch rubber, and he had spells on top, but the times were improving every lap as conditions improved. Massa, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Hulkenberg again, Vettel, and then Hamilton again all had turns at the top, and in the end it was the world champion on pole yet again with 1m 07.922s, Rosberg was next with 1m 08.465s, with Hulkenberg third on 1m 09.285s ahead of Vettel on 1m 09.781s, Button on 1m 09.900s, Raikkonen on 1m 09.901s and Ricciardo on 1m 09.980s. Bottas was eighth with 1m 10.440s ahead of Verstappen on 1m 11.153s and Massa on 1m 11.977s.
Both Vettel and Rosberg have five-place grid penalties for unscheduled gearbox changes, while Palmer, Nasr and Haryanto all picked up three-place penalties for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags in Q1.
Thus the provisional grid will line up: Hamilton, Hulkenberg; Button, Raikkonen; Ricciardo, Rosberg; Bottas, Verstappen; Vettel, Massa; Gutierrez, Wehrlein; Grosjean, Alonso; Sainz, Perez; Magnussen, Kvyat; Ericsson, Palmer; Haryanto, Nasr.