This was Mercedes’ third pole in succession and two-in-a-row for Rosberg as once again the team from Brackley demonstrated they are without peer over one lap. Sebastian Vettel, third for Red Bull Racing and Lotus’ Kimi Räikkönen, fourth, will take comfort from the fact that Mercedes have consistently faded over longer stints this season, proving uncompetitive in the long runs.
No-one has ever won a grand prix from off the first two rows at the Circuit de Catalunya but the partisan crowd, a sea of Fernando Alonso-supporting red will hope to see that statistic overturned, with the home favourite starting from fifth. He lines up on row three alongside the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. Alonso’s team-mate Felipe Massa qualified sixth but will take a three-place drop on the grid for impeding Red Bull’s Mark Webber. Webber himself will start seventh, alongside McLaren’s Sergio Pérez. Massa slots into ninth with Force India’s Paul di Resta tenth.
Rosberg dominated Q3. He went out on track as soon as the pitlane opened and was the second man across the line, taking P1 and eclipsing the early benchmark set by the much-fancied Räikkönen.
Thereafter, Rosberg was never bested. Vettel opted to do only one run in Q3 and for a time looked like he might snatch a first pole at the Circuit de Catalunya, setting times faster than Rosberg in sectors one and two before fading toward the end of the lap and slotting into P2. That would soon become P3 as Hamilton made it an all-Mercedes front row. Rosberg, meanwhile, improved his time by a tenth, setting 1:20.718 as the new standard but the other pole contenders, Massa, Alonso and Webber could not get close to the mark.
Mercedes’ clear pleasure at a front-row lockout was tempered by a slight air of unreality: while supreme over one lap, the evidence of the last two races suggests they will struggle to live with the cars behind over a race distance – a notion endorsed by Rosberg in the FIA press conference following the session.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m very confident that I can go for the win tomorrow,” said the German driver. “No, the target needs to be a little bit less than that I think – maybe a podium.”
He did, however, suggest that Mercedes would not struggle to the extent they had in Bahrain, where conditions exaggerated minor failings.
Despite this, Vettel will no doubt feel confident after his third place, which is strengthened by his decision to run the entire qualifying session on medium tyres, leaving him a full compliment of the preferred hard compound tyres for the race.
“We had a pretty smooth qualifying session,” said the world champion. “Again, a little bit of a different approach than the majority of people – using option tyres only. Whether that helps us tomorrow we’ll have to wait and see. I’m happy with today’s result.”
Räikkönen said fourth was about the best he could have done in qualifying and expressed a belief that his car could move up in the race, a view echoed by Alonso. “I think this is the maximum of what we have at the moment in our hands,” said the Spaniard. “We know that the race pace is maybe a little bit better for us, so we need to wait for our opportunities tomorrow. We need to have a clean start, a good first lap, and then a good strategy, because tyre degradation will again be very high. I feel confident. The car felt good yesterday, I felt competitive. Historically Sunday has been our best day of the weekend, so no reason not to be on the podium tomorrow.”
Behind the Q3 runners it is Toro Rosso who seem to have fared best in the upgrade battle. Having looked strong throughout practice, the team from Faenza qualified 11th and 12th, with Daniel Ricciardo in front of Jean-Eric Vergne.
A disappointed Adrian Sutil was 13th for Force India, having struggled to find clean air in the last minutes of Q2. He is joined on row seven by Jenson Button, the 2009 Spanish Grand Prix winner struggling to get the tyres of his McLaren working to his liking.
Nico Hülkenberg was 15th for Sauber, and would have been alongside team-mate Esteban Gutiérrez but the Mexican picked up a three-place penalty for impeding Räikkönen. That drops him behind the Williams, both of whom failed to get out of Q1 – though Valtteri Bottas has the consolation of out-pacing last year’s winner Pastor Maldonado – and Giedo van der Garde, who had an excellent day for Caterham. Jules Bianchi will line up 20th for Marussia, ahead of team-mate Chilton, with Charles Pic last after struggling to find balance in the upgraded Caterham.