Even after abandoning his final flying lap, nothing - not even Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg - could prevent Lewis Hamilton taking pole position for the 2016 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix, as the world champion headed qualifying by four-tenths of a second at Sepang on Saturday.
But the Silver Arrows could face strong competition in the race, with the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo in striking distance on the second row and the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen on the third, especially if either Mercedes falters with the sort of problems they encountered at Hockenheim or Monza.
The Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg filled out row four, while McLaren’s Jenson Button will start his 300th Grand Prix from ninth on the grid. Williams’ Felipe Massa completed the top ten.
The opening Q1 phase was a question of the yellow soft tyres, or the white mediums? Was it possible to get through without using a set of the softer tyres? Mercedes set the pace with the yellow Pirellis, Hamilton just ahead of Rosberg, but initially Ferrari and Red Bull stayed with the whites as Force India and Williams copied Mercedes.
In the end, Ferrari did likewise, since Raikkonen and Vettel were only ninth and 10th after the first runs. That put them on Mercedes’ tail, with the duo only a tenth off the Silver Arrows drivers.
Ricciardo was seventh, Verstappen 12th.
Neither Sauber got through to Q2; Marcus Ericsson lapped in 1m 35.816s, Felipe Nasr in 1m 35.949s. Jolyon Palmer didn’t improve on 1m 35.999s for Renault, having earlier gone off in Turn 6 and later had trouble on what seemed like a decent lap as he exited Turn 15.
Esteban Ocon out-qualified Manor team mate Pascal Wehrlein, with 1m 36.451s to 1m 36.587s, as McLaren’s Fernando Alonso did only a few laps to check out the revised brake duct set-up that had resulted in him not doing much running in FP3. His best was 1m 37.155s, but remember he has a 45-place grid drop thanks to engine-change penalties, so fast laps would just have wasted tyres.
Hamilton smashed Rosberg at the start of Q2 with 1m 33.046s to 1m 33.609s, as Verstappen’s 1m 33.775s aced Ricciardo’s 1m 33.888s, Raikkonen’s 1m 33.903s and Vettel’s 1m 33.972s. Massa was seventh on 1m 34.422s.
Leaving the Brazilian in the pits as everyone south of him went for another run looked risky for Williams, but only Button got close with an improvement to 1m 34.431s which put his McLaren eighth ahead of the Force Indias.
That left Valtteri Bottas in the cold in the second Williams on 1m 34.538s ahead of the Haas cars of Romain Grosjean (who lost his right-hand mirror in Q1) on 1m 34.801s and Esteban Gutierrez on 1m 35.097s, Kevin Magnussen’s Renault on 1m 35.277s, and the Toro Rossos of Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz on 1m 35.369s and 1m 35.374s respectively.
Q3 saw Perez go fastest initially on 1m 35.173s before he was displaced in turn by Vettel on 1m 33.916s, Verstappen on 1m 33.420s, Raikkonen on 1m 33.632s, Ricciardo on 1m 33.526s, and Rosberg on 1m 33.761s after an off over a kerb and oversteer exiting Turn 15. But Hamilton redefined all of that with 1m 32.850s, close to the fastest lap ever recorded here. It seemed that would be hard to beat, as Verstappen reported drizzle.
The rain held off, but while a locked right front prevented Hamilton from looking remotely like improving his time, Rosberg could only manage 1m 33.264s which hoisted him to second. Verstappen failed to improve but held on for third, as Ricciardo closed in with 1m 33.467s and Vettel did likewise with 1m 33.584s, leaving them fourth and fifth ahead of Raikkonen who didn’t go faster.
Perez’s 1m 34.319s left him seventh ahead of Force India team mate Hulkenberg on 1m 34.489s. Button took ninth on 1m 34.518s for McLaren, as Massa brought up the rear for Williams with 1m 34.671s.
Thus the provisional grid reads: Hamilton, Rosberg; Verstappen, Ricciardo; Vettel, Raikkonen; Perez, Hulkenberg; Button, Massa; Bottas, Grosjean; Gutierrez, Magnussen; Kvyat, Sainz; Ericsson, Nasr; Palmer, Ocon; Wehrlein, Alonso.