Lewis Hamilton successfully clinched an unparalleled 100th pole position in Formula 1 by outpacing Red Bull's Max Verstappen and his own Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas in the final round of qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix.
Verstappen had been lightning fast in the second round but was unable to reproduce the searing pace in Q3, although he did enough to force himself onto the front row while Bottas will start from third alongside Ferrari's Charles Leclerc.
An out-of-sorts Yuki Tsunoda had earlier missed the cut at the end of Q1 as did Kimi Raikkonen, while both Aston Martins failed to make the grade at the end of Q2 along with Pierre Gasly in the second AlphaTauri.
After three different drivers topped the three practice sessions at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, it was impossible to tell whether Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas or Max Verstappen was favourite to claim pole position on Saturday afternoon. Sunny, dry and very warm conditions greeted the field as they waited to get underway following a ten minute delay while track workers attended to the barriers at turn 9, which had sustained damage during an earlier support event.
Q1: Norris surges to the top as Tsunoda and Raikkonen miss the cut
Once the track went green, Williams' Nicholas Latifi and George Russell were joined by Haas' Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin as the first drivers to break cover and head out. Latifi was the best of the group with a lap of 1:20.241s while Russell pitted without setting a time after a mistake in the first sector.
The front runners were then soon in action. The two Mercedes cars were on mediums, and Bottas went quickest with a time of 1:18.005s followed by the soft-shod Verstappen while Hamilton was third ahead of Sergio Perez. Carlos Sainz then nudged in front of Hamilton, two tenths slower than Bottas, with his Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc opening his account in fifth. That pushed Perez down to sixth followed by Yuki Tsunoda, Lando Norris, Sebastian Vettel and the Alfa Romeos of Antonio Giovinazzi and Kimi Raikkonen.
The final cars to post initial lap times included Pierre Gasly (into third place), Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon (debuting in sixth and seventh respectively), and Fernando Alonso (ninth), with Russell returning to the fray to finally post a time good enough for 11th. That had the result of pushing Raikkonen into the drop zone where he was now joined by Lance Stroll, Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin.
A better follow-up run by Perez promoted the Mexican up to fourth place ahead of the usual mid-session intermission, as the cars returned to pit lane for fine-tuning before a final shoot-out commenced in the final three minutes. With the exception of Hamilton, the top eight all felt secure enough to sit things out; but further down the order the field was too closely packed to allow teams to take anything for granted.
Raikkonen briefly got out of jail but was only good enough for 15th, and he was instantly back in trouble when Stroll shot up into the top ten. After his first lap had been hampered by traffic, Norris sent shockwaves through the paddock by promoting McLaren to the top of the timesheets with a time of 1:17.821s on his next run putting him ahead of Bottas, while Leclerc improved to third ahead of Verstappen, Gasly and Perez. Russell and Giovinazzi also both moved forward to find the safe shores of 14th and 15th respectively, thereby dumping Tsunoda onto the sidelines with Raikkonen, Schumacher, Latifi and Mazepin. An angry Tsunoda in particular had good reason to feel ill-served by the outcome as he was only 0.735s away from the top time and yet still left on the wrong side of the cut.
Q2: Verstappen hits new heights as Ferrari, McLaren Alpine all progress
Teams were reticent to be first out when the track went green for Q2. Mercedes finally made their move with a surprise switch to soft tyres for both Bottas and Hamilton, which proved to be the order of the day for everyone bar Giovinazzi. It was Hamilton who then set the fastest time of the weekend so far with a 1:17.632s, but this was immediately bettered by over a quarter of a second by Bottas. Even this was entirely insufficient to fend off Verstappen whose 1:16.922s was in a different league entirely, almost half a second clear of the rest of the field.
Norris checked in to fourth place ahead of Alonso, Stroll, Gasly and Ocon, leaving Perez in a precarious tenth place and over a second slower than his Red Bull team mate. Subsequent flying laps saw Sainz and Leclerc move into fifth and sixth place respectively, with Daniel Ricciardo just scraping into the top ten leaving Ocon, Perez, Vettel and Giovinazzi in the elimination zone along with Russell who was biding his time in the garage and banking on a single late run.
Verstappen understandably (if slightly unusually for the Dutch driver) decided to sit out the final flying laps, which saw improved times for both Bottas and Hamilton but not by nearly enough to challenge the Red Bull's towering effort. Russell's sole run of Q2 briefly took 14th position while Sainz climbed to fourth. Perez scrambled to safety in fifth ahead of Norris and Leclerc, and Ricciardo dug deep to make it up to eighth and through to the final round along with Alpine pair Ocon and Alonso.
That meant Stroll had ended up missing out on 11th, with Gasly, Vettel, Giovinazzi and Russell also done for the day as the chequered flag fell on Q2.
Q3: Hamilton holds on to pole, Verstappen and Bottas fail to find extra pace
With Verstappen having shown his hand and thrown down the gauntlet, the top ten pole shoot-out round appeared to be his for the taking. There was a tense stand-off on pit lane with more than a minute elapsing before Norris took the plunge and emerged from the garage on a set of used soft tyres, starting a trend that soon brought out the remaining nine runners.
Norris' first run clocked in at a relatively sedate 1:18.010s, and this was soon bettered by the two Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc. Ocon briefly held the top spot but then it was Hamilton going to the top with a time of 1:16.741s, 0.036s clear of Verstappen's corresponding effort with Bottas in third and Perez failing to set any time at all after running wide and spinning into the gravel heading into turn 13. He was able to extricate the Red Bull and return to pit lane, but now all his hopes rested with the one final flying lap still to come.
Norris was once again at the head of the field when the cars came back out for the second and final run of Q3, with Hamilton and Alonso also finding space on track but Verstappen ending up running behind Bottas. Even so it wasn't the tidiest lap for Hamilton, and Bottas was also unable to find more time, but the big surprise was that Verstappen also failed to wring anything extra out of the Red Bull and remained in second place between the two Mercedes. It meant Hamilton had successfully achieved a milestone 100th pole, having already long held the all-time record for the number of poles from Michael Schumacher with a 'mere' 68.
Leclerc managed to improve to fourth ahead of Ocon followed by Sainz and Ricciardo. Meanwhile Perez successfully completed his second run to finally set a time, but it was only good enough for eighth on the grid ahead of Norris and Alonso.