After the tragic events of last weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, the F1 circus was forced to re-group for this weekend's inaugural Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. A week had done little to remove the hurt for the drivers as they still struggled to come to terms with the terrible injuries suffered by Jules Bianchi. For the drivers the best way to forget their emotions was to carry on racing with the qualifying session a step into the unknown for everyone in the F1 paddock.
Unsurprisingly given this was a new F1 track plenty of cars ventured out from the start of Q1, hoping to gain as much track running and therefore information they could during the three segments of qualifying. Lewis Hamilton was the first to set a truly quick lap with a 1m40.1 laptime, something that was quickly smashed by AMG Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg who set a 1m39.292 lap time, a cool 0.769 quicker than title rival Hamilton after their first flying laps.
The Mercedes engined cars were once again well clear of the rest as the first non-Mercedes powered car for most of Q1 was local favourite and Scuderia Toro Rosso rookie Daniil Kvyat, who was a whopping 1.7 seconds behind the two AMG Mercedes cars at the front.
It didn't take Lewis Hamilton long to respond with his second run, popping in a 1m39.2 lap with 9 minutes left in the session. Much like Hamilton it didn't take Rosberg long to improve on that as he fired back with a 1m39.076 lap time to reassert himself at the front. The back and forth fighting between the two AMG Mercedes drivers was resolved when Hamilton finally stole top spot with 6 minutes left in the session after a 1m38.759 lap.
Further back and the Williams team were hugely unfortunate in Q1 as despite looking strong so far Felipe Massa was struggling to make it out of Q1 with a engine issue that left him well down on power all session.
Once the chequered flag came out in Q1 it was Marcus Ericsson who was an impressive 17th for Caterham, Massa frustrated with 18th and Caterham team mate Kamui Kobayashi 19th. Pastor Maldonado was 20th but goes to the back after an engine change in Japan whilst the impressive Marussia team soldiered on with Max Chilton in 21st.
Once again the majority of the grid was out early in Q2, keen to adsorb as much info as possible for tomorrow's race. The initial laps were in the 1m40/1m41 range, before a flurry of quick laps were set by the two AMG Mercedes and the sole remaining Williams of Valtteri Bottas. Rosberg was first with a 1m38.979, before Bottas pipped him with a 1m38.971 lap time. Hamilton then blitzed everyone with a stunning 1m38.338 lap, 0.633 faster than Bottas.
Rosberg soon improved to only 0.268 behind Hamilton, which is how it stayed at the top as the two AMG Mercedes and two impressive McLaren's chose to save tyres and remain in the pits whilst everyone else completed a final runs in the dying minutes of Q2.
This qualifying session provided another shock in Q2 as the reigning world champion Sebastien Vettel was eliminated in 11th for Red Bull. The team has been struggling all weekend so far, however being out-qualified again by his team mate Daniel Ricciardo will not please the Ferrari bound German.
Behind him the two Sahara-Force India's of Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez were 12th and 13th, whilst the two Sauber's were 14th and 15th in Esteban Gutierrez's favour against Adrian Sutil. Romain Grosjean rounded out the top 16 in a hugely difficult year for Lotus-Renault.
Heading into Q3 the first runs began immediately for a majority of the field, with a tardy first lap from Hamilton meaning he was left 1.034 seconds behind Rosberg after their first flying laps. All the remaining drivers were struggling to keep their tyres fresh however despite this Hamilton was soon able to recover on his next flying lap, with a 1m38.647 lap, something Rosberg was unable to match as he was left 0.267 down on Hamilton with a few minutes left in the session.
Everyone was out on track in the final minutes, hoping to improve their grid positions for the race. The drivers were also having to balance their banzai laps with a need to conserve their tyres also, something that is very difficult to balance in a Q3 qualifying shootout.
With only a few seconds left of the session Hamilton improved on his final lap to a 1m38.513 lap, which turned out to be 0.200 of a second better than Rosberg could do behind him. The biggest threat to Hamilton in the dying seconds was the Williams of Bottas, who was marginally up on him going into the final sector before his tyres gave out in the final few corners leaving him 3rd and Hamilton a relieved pole sitter.
Jenson Button showed McLaren are looking good this weekend in 4th to complete row 2, with row 3 being made up of the Russian rookie Kvyat who saved his best qualifying performance of the year for his home race and another standout rookie in McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen. For Magnussen however he is forced to take a 5 place grid penalty for a gearbox change during Free Practice 3 this morning.
Row 4 consists of Daniel Ricciardo in the remaining Red Bull in 7th with Fernando Alonso in 8th for Ferrari as their miserable season continues. The final row of the top 10 will be made up of the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen in 9th with the second Scuderia Toro Rosso of Jean Eric Vergne rounding out the top 10.
Tomorrow will prove to be a hugely exciting debut Russian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton appearing to have the upper hand on team mate and title rival Nico Rosberg so far, although as previous races have shown in Hamilton's favour, it can all change come race day. What are your thoughts on this qualifying session?