Lewis Hamilton has secured pole position for the Mexican GP but Nico Rosberg will start the race alongside his title rival.
Rosberg was just fourth behind both Red Bulls after the opening Q3 runs but, under mounting pressure, produced his best lap of the weekend as the chequered flag fell to join his Mercedes team-mate on the front row.
Hamilton now leads Rosberg 10-9 in qualifying this year but Saturday’s result could have been far better for the Englishman as Rosberg, looking a distant second best, searched in vain to find the sweet spot of his W07 until the final moments of the qualifying hour.
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“He has struggled all weekend but did the job at the end,” Hamilton told Sky F1. “He wasn’t happy with the set-up that he had had but we have identical set-ups now and he was able to pull the car round and get a good job in his last lap in Q3.
“That shows that he’s a great competitor.”
Rosberg will secure the championship this weekend if he wins the race and Hamilton finishes 10th or lower. Holding a 26-point lead with three races remaining, Rosberg will still win his first title even if finishes all of the final events in second place behind Hamilton.
“It’s not pole position, but it gives me great chance,” said the championship leader. “It took a bit longer this weekend to find the way. I’m still two tenths from Lewis, his lap was brilliant – not mine.”
While the German suddenly found his pace in the closing seconds, Ferrari went backwards after being unable to switch on the supersoft tyres.
“We were just not quick enough,” rued a frustrated Sebastian Vettel after being out-qualified by team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for the ninth time in 2016. “We were struggling on the supersofts. On the softs we were very good and we were quicker than on the supersofts, which isn’t right.”
The Scuderia’s regression meant Red Bull locked out the second row for the fourth race in a row and, in contrast to Rosberg and Hamilton, both Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will start the race on the supersoft tyres – a strategy which nearly resulted in the Australian snatching second place at the US GP a week ago.
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The surprise of the session was the performance of Nico Hulkenberg. While Sergio Perez, driving in front of his home fans, failed to reach the top-10 shoot-out, Hulkenberg beat both Ferraris to fifth with a lap which was just six tenths off pole.
Neither McLaren made it past Q2 while Renault’s under-pressure Jolyon Palmer didn’t even make it out of the garage after damaging his car in final practice. “Q2 was on the cards and it’s really frustrating,” bemoaned Palmer. “We could have been fighting for one of our best grid slots of the year.”
Mexican GP Qualifying
1. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1:18.704
2. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, + 0.254
3. Max Verstappen, Red Bull, + 0.350
4. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, + 0.429
5. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India, + 0.626
6. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari, + 0.672
7. Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari,+ 0.677
8. Valtteri Bottas, Williams, + 0.847
9. Felipe Massa, Williams, + 1.328
10. Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso, + 1.647
Eliminated in Q2
11. Fernando Alonso, McLaren, 1:20.282
12. Sergio Perez, Force India, 1:20.287
13. Jenson Button, McLaren, 1:20.673
14. Kevin Magnussen, Renault, 1:21.131
15. Marcus Ericsson, Sauber, 1:21.536
16. Pascal Wehrlein, Manor, 1:21.785
Eliminated in Q1
17. Esteban Gutierrez, Haas, 1:21.401
18. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso, 1:21.454
19. Felipe Nasr, Sauber, 1:21.692
20. Esteban Ocon, Manor, 1:21.881
21. Romain Grosjean, Haas, 1:21.916
22. Jolyon Palmer, Renault, No time set