* Lewis Hamilton will take a five place grid drop for gear-box change
It will be Nico Rosberg starting the Chinese GP on pole after the Mercedes driver blitzed the rest of the top ten to qualify half a second faster than Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher. After his grid drop for changing his gearbox Hamilton will start the race from seventh, meaning that it will be an all Mercedes front row. Going into qualifying it looked like we could be in for a repeat of the past two races as Hamilton led a McLaren 1-2 in the third and final free practice session. It was once again Jean-Eric Vergne who ended up dropping out after Q3, joining the ‘usual suspects’ as Heikki Kovalainen once again out-qualified team-mate Vitaly Petrov, Timo Glock ahead of Charles Pic and Pedro de la Rosa ahead of Narain Karthikeyan, who all qualified well within the 107% rule.
In Q1 drivers initially set times using the harder compound tyres but towards the end of the session some drivers were forced to take on the soft tyres, particularly the likes of Felipe Massa who continually finds himself under pressure to perform. As he slipped down the order he became one of the first to swap tyre compounds and instantly went fastest. Sebastian Vettel completed his flying lap and confirmed with his engineer that they thought that was enough to get him through. As the chequered flag came out at the end of Q1 it became clear that he was safe – but not before he dropped right down the order to 15th. It came down to Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne as to who would be the one to drop out and it was Vergne who improved his time on his final run, but not enough to get into Q2. Pastor Maldonado and Heikki Kovalainen were involved in an investigation for impeding and after qualifying Kovalainen suggested that Maldonado should be penalised as he had blocked him during one of his fast laps. Bruno Senna and de la Rosa were also investigated for impeding.
Q2 was even closer as drivers battled to get a spot in the pole position shoot out. Mark Webber topped the times ahead of the two Mercedes drivers but team-mate Sebastian Vettel was unlucky to miss out on Q3 by mere hundredths of a second. Massa was only three tenths off his team-mate but Alonso made it through while the Brazilian did not as he qualified 12th. Behind him the rest of the grid lines up in two-by-two formation with Pastor Maldonado ahead of Bruno Senna, Paul di Resta ahead of Nico Hulkenberg, and Ricciardo ahead of Vergne. This meant that going through to the shoot-out would be Webber, both Mercedes drivers, both McLaren drivers, both Lotus drivers, both Sauber drivers, and Fernando Alonso. They were separated by just three tenths of a second!
Kimi Räikkönen was the first out on track for Q3 closely followed by both Mercedes drivers. The track had started to cool during the duration of qualifying meaning that it would be harder for teams to warm their tyres. Räikkönen’s first attempt was a 1:38.898 which was quickly beaten by a blisteringly quick Rosberg who set a 1:38.121, which turned out to be the pole lap time as nobody else could get close. His team-mate was the first to attempt to beat it but was a huge five tenths slower – huge in relation to how close the times had been in Q2. Hamilton was next up but the pole-sitter for the previous two races couldn’t better Rosberg’s time but was able to slip into second. Rosberg clearly thought he had done enough, or at least as much as he could do as he got out of his car with eight minutes remaining. It came down to the rest of the drivers to fight over who would start in second position down but it appeared that track conditions meant that nobody could improve, apart from Kamui Kobayashi who put in a late flyer to qualify in fourth, which becomes third when Hamilton takes his penalty. This means an all Mercedes front row ahead of Kobayashi, Räikkönen, Button, Webber, Hamilton, Sergio Perez, Alonso and Romain Grosjean (who set no time).
There are a lot of questions waiting to be answered like can the Mercedes hold on at the front or will their race pace let them down again? Can Kobayashi secure another podium, or even a win, for the ever present Sauber? What can Hamilton do from seventh and will Vettel progress quickly from 11th? Also watch out for Räikkönen and Grosjean, who hopes to complete more than a handful of laps.
You can check how team-mates stack up against each other in qualifying head-to-heads here
Roll on the race!