Lewis Hamilton rose to the top with a more than one second advantage over the rest of the field in an all-action, soaking wet qualifying session for the 2020 Styrian Grand Prix in Spielberg, Austria.
Hamilton topped all three rounds of qualifying, but was pushed all the way by Red Bull's Max Verstappen who will line up alongside the reigning champion on the front row of the grid despite aquaplaning into a spin on his final Q3 lap.
Alfa Romeo's Antonio Giovinazzi triggered a red flag at the end of Q1 after spinning off, and Romain Grosjean was unable to set a time after running off on his out lap with an apparent brake issue. There was a strong performance from George Williams that put the Williams into Q2 and onto 13th place on the grid.
After heavy rain had truncated the Saturday morning Formula 3 race and caused the cancellation of final F1 practice, it had been a fraught wait to see whether the conditions would improve long enough to drain the drenched track and for qualifying to commence. Finally, about 45 minutes after the original scheduled time for the start of the session, the pit lane at the Red Bull Ring came alive to the sounds of engines being fired up. The game was afoot at last!
Q1: Hamilton quickest, Perez eliminated as red flag ends session
With the threat of the return of heavier rain very much in the front of everyone's minds, there was a long queue of cars waiting to exit pit lane when the lights went green for the start of the first 18-minute round of qualifying. The two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were at the front and first out on track once the delayed session finally got underway, while Haas' Romain Grosjean brought up the rear - only to run off at turn 4 with apparent brake issues, forcing him to limp back to pit lane without setting a time.
With everyone on the full wet tyres, Vettel succeeded in setting the initial benchmark of 1:24.235s, Leclerc initially beaten into third by Antonio Giovinazzi. However the situation was wildly variable, George Russell briefly popping to the top before Leclerc's second lap saw him go a full second faster than the Williams. Another lap for Leclerc saw the Ferrari improve to 1:21.857s, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen now up to second ahead of Renault's Esteban Ocon, and Vettel pushed back to fourth ahead of Alexander Albon and McLaren's Carlos Sainz.
The two Mercedes drivers were taking their time to make their mark, but Lewis Hamilton briefly went top before a further improvement by Leclerc pushed him back down to second. Moments later Valtteri Bottas headed the timesheets, before a fast lap from Verstappen put Red Bull on top with a time of 1:20.621s, a little over a tenth faster than the Finn.
Halfway through the session, the elimination zone was occupied by Daniel Ricciardo, Kevin Magnussen, Sergio Perez, George Russell and the sidelined Romain Grosjean, but it was changing every few seconds and soon the AlphaTauri pair of Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat found themselves at risk along with Giovinazzi, as Ricciardo, Magnussen and Russell all jumped to safety.
The laps continued relentlessly: Bottas had improved to 1:19.637s, just 0.027s quicker than Hamilton, but his time at the top was brief before Lando Norris found a full half improvement second in the McLaren. Clearly no one could consider themselves safe at this point, and the Ferraris were among a number of cars heading to pit lane for new tyres to get whatever advantage the fresh rubber could offer in the final minutes.
Hamilton reasserted his hold on the top with a time of 1:18.188s ahead of Norris and Sainz, followed by Bottas, Verstappen, Ricciardo and Ocon. Verstappen managed to put in one more lap that proved good enough for second by the time Giovinazzi carried too much speed into the final corner and hit the barrier; although he was initially able to get underway again, the Alfa Romeo finally ground to a halt at turn 4 and triggered a red flag terminating the session 13 seconds earlier than scheduled.
The Giovinazzi incident caught out several drivers who had been fighting for their qualifying lives: ironically, the Italian's team mate Kimi Raikkonen was the first of those marooned in the drop down, together with Perez and Williams' Nicolas Latifi. As well as Giovinazzi himself, Grosjean was also eliminated after Haas were unable to get the can repaired in time after its out lap off.
Q2: Hamilton stays top as Leclerc fails to make it through
The rain continued to fall - although still within tolerable levels - as Vettel was once again at the head the cars taking to the track for the second round of qualifying, only to find himself running behind Ocon when he started his first flying lap. It meant that his opening gambit was a full two seconds slower than that of Bottas who reported for Q2 duty with an initial 1:19.006s. Hamilton's subsequent effort took the top spot by 0.265s, but Verstappen soon found an extra half second again on the fastest of the Silver Arrows.
Ricciardo was the best of the rest in fourth ahead of Norris and Sainz, with Vettel up to eighth place behind Albon once he finally got a clear run. However, improvements from Ocon and Gasly pushed Vettel down into tenth place, with Leclerc already in the drop zone along with Stroll, Russell, Kvyat and Magnussen. Vettel opted to put for another set of wet tyres but ran wide as he started his flying lap, nearly collecting Leclerc who was exiting pit lane after his own change of tyres.
However the weather was about to get the final word, with the rain picking up just as drivers were desperately to find something extra. Not that this held up Hamilton, who renewed his lead at the top with a new fastest time of 1:17.825s which was 0.113s ahead of Verstappen, and Norris jumping into third in front of Bottas, Ocon, Sainz, Albon, Gasly, Ricciardo and Vettel. Gasly subsequently found enough in the final seconds to move up to fifth, but Vettel wasn't able to improve his time and remained in tenth.
Fortunately for the four time world champion, his team mate's final last-gasp effort - which could have knocked him out of the session - ended up hitting traffic, and Leclerc duly ended up the first of those in the drop zone at the end of the second round, along with Russell, Stroll, Kvyat and Magnussen.
Q3: Hamilton clinches pole, Verstappen spins on final push
With further rain a distinct possibility, there was no time to lose when the final top ten pole shootout round began. Verstappen took the initial honours with a 1:21.800s, modest compared to the Q1 times and an indication of how the conditions had worsened during the brief break, especially when neither Hamilton nor Bottas were able to match the Red Bull's pace. on their initial runs.
Verstappen then trimmed a couple of tenths off with his second run, but by now Hamilton had his measure and started to show his hand with a lap of 1:21.272s; after that was beaten by Bottas, he responded with an emphatic improvement to 1:20.649s. When that was bettered in turn by Verstappen, Hamilton found another level and punched in a response of 1:19.702s to retake provisional pole.
Verstappen threw everything into his final push lap, only to end up spinning at the last corner and failing to set a time. In contrast, Hamilton found even more pace and ended up 1.2s ahead of the entire rest of the field headed by Verstappen, while Carlos Sainz had successfully edged in front of Bottas for third.
Renault's Ocon will start from fifth place, but Norris will drop three places on the grid for a yellow flag infringement in Friday's practice session meaning that Albon gets promotion up to sixth, and row four filled by Gasly and Ricciardo. Norris will now start from ninth, lining up on the same row as the underwhelming Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.