Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton powered towards the 63rd pole position of his career in Shanghai, edging out Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by just under two tenths of a second, with the German claiming second spot on the grid ahead of the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas by just 1000th of a second.
Hamilton was the first to make a move in Q1 setting the early pace with a time of 1:33.333. Team-mate Bottas then slotted into P2, four-tenths behind the three-time champion.
The Briton’s time in P1 was short, however, as Vettel swiftly appeared to dislodge him, the Ferrari driving lapping almost three tenths quicker than the Mercedes man. Vettel also took top spot on soft tyres, whereas Hamilton had used the supersoft rubber. Raikkonen, who also used only the soft tyre, took third ahead of Bottas, while Williams’ Lance Stroll put in an excellent final flyer to claim fifth place ahead of Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo.
The Australian ensured passage to Q2 with a time 1:34.041, set early in the session. There was no such comfort for team-mate Max Verstappen, however.
The Dutchman was slow on opening flyer and after reporting a problem with his power unit he abandoned the lap and retreated to the pit lane. He was soon back on track but time was rapidly running out. Midway through the lap he was being fed possible solutions to the loss of power by his team but the remedial action appeared to achieve little.
His first time, set 30 seconds before the flag was good enough for P17 and he was told to try for another lap, but any possibility of improvement was eradicated moments later when Sauber’s Antonio Giovinazzi crashed heavily in the final corner just as the chequered flag came out.
It meant that Verstappen ended the session in P19, eliminated ahead of Esteban Ocon and behind 16th placed Stoffel Vandoorne of McLaren, Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Renault’s Jolyon Palmer.
Raikkonen set the early pace in Q2 with a lap of 1:32.602 before again being bested by Vettel and Hamilton. Bottas too eclipsed the Finn to leave the two Ferraris split by the Mercedes pair. Ricciardo slotted into P5 with his first run.
In the drop zone with five minutes to go were McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in P11, followed by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen and Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.
It was Hulkenberg who made the most of the final run. The German posted an excellent lap of 1:33.636 to vault from P12 to P6. He finished ahead of Massa, Force India’s Sergio Perez, Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat and 10th placed Stroll.
Eliminated at this stage were Carlos Sainz in the second Toro Rosso in P11, Magnussen, Alonso, Ericsson and the unfortunate Giovinazzi.
At the front of the pack the Mercedes drivers and Ricciardo opted to sit out the final run. Ferrari, though, chose to send out its drivers and it was Räikkönen who made the most of the lap. The Finn jumped to the top of the order with a time of 1:32.181, two tenths of a second clear of Vettel who did not improve.
Having dominated the opening segments it might have been expected that Ferrari would again lead the way at the start of Q3. It was Hamilton, however, who set the early setting a time of 1:31.90 to head by Vettel by just over a tenths of second, with Bottas third ahead of Raikkonen and Ricciardo.
And Hamilton kept the momentum in the final runs. The first across the line he set a benchmark of 1:31.678. Bottas then slotted into P2 with a time of 1:31.865. Raikkonen couldn’t get close to that but Vettel was edging towards the end of what was looking to be a very competitive lap. In the end though he couldn’t match Hamilton and finished 0.186 behind the Briton. He was, however, 1000th of a second quicker than Bottas and so claimed his 72nd career front row start. Ricciardo remained in fifth place ahead of Massa, Hulkenberg, Perez, Kvyat and Stroll.