Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton digs deep to take pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix by less than half a tenth of a second from Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.
But the Finn’s team mate Sebastian Vettel will start from the back row of the grid after engine issues prevented him from setting any time in Q1.
Sebastian Vettel wasted no time getting out on track, the Ferrari pit crew having completed an engine change in double-quick time following issues in FP3. However he suffered a lack of power on his outlap and returned to pit lane without setting a time. His qualifying session was over and done before it had even started.
It fell instead to Vettel’s team mate to take first blood. Raikkonen’s initial lap of 1:32.277s proved a tenth faster than those of Hamilton and Bottas. All had started the session on soft tyres.
Hamilton responded with follow-up lap of 1:31.605s to go top ahead of Verstappen by three tenths. The birthday boy had spent his lunch break with the race stewards about his FP3 clash with Jolyon Palmer; the stewards decided to take no further action over the incident.
Bottas also improved his time to claim third ahead of Raikkonen. Williams’ Felipe Massa was the fastest runner on supersofts ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Estaban Ocon. New boy Pierre Gasly acquitted himself well with eighth place in his first Formula 1 qualifying session with Toro Rosso.
Romain Grosjean missed out on Q1 by a quarter of a second along with his Haas team mate Kevin Magnussen. Also eliminated at the end of the first round were the two Saubers of Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson. Vettel meanwhile is set for a back row start, and will likely use the opportunity to incur grid penalties in order to utilise extra power unit elements.
With dark clouds massing overhead, it was a quick start to Q2 for the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, and the sole remaining Ferrari. All were immediately on to supersofts for this session.
It was Raikkonen who won the initial duel with a lap of 1:30.926s, just five thousandths of a second faster than Verstappen. Hamilton and Bottas were third and fourth ahead of Ricciardo and Ocon. However, only the top two felt secure enough not to return for a second run at the end of the session.
Bottas used that opportunity to go top with a time of 1:30.803s with the new Mercedes aero upgrades. On the older equipment, Hamilton was unable to improve on fourth ahead of Ricciardo. Sergio Perez nipped ahead of his Force India team mate for sixth, with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg just behind in eighth. Both McLarens made it through to Q3 despite Fernando Alonso predicting that his final run would be ‘a mess’ because of traffic interfering with his outlap.
Missing out on the final round were Massa, Palmer, Lance Stroll and the two Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly.
Bottas was back on it at the start of the pole shootout with a time of 1:30.945s. However that was immediately shattered by an out-of-the-blue flier from Hamilton, almost ninth tenths faster that his team mate.
Subsequent efforts from Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Verstappen did enough to split the two Mercedes drivers, but none were good enough to usurp Hamilton from provisional pole.
With everyone except Hulkenberg having put in a banker lap, all ten drivers returned to the track for a final run in the closing minutes. Hamilton wasn’t able to improve, but Raikkonen missed out on stealing pole by just 0.045s. As a result, it will the Briton’s fifth time starting on pole at Sepang International Circuit on Sunday.
Verstappen and Ricciardo swapped positions on the second row, with Bottas remaining fifth ahead of Ocon, Vandoorne, Hulkenberg, Perez and Alonso.