Lewis Hamilton took his fifth pole position of 2016 and the 54th of his career in a topsy turvy wet final qualifying session that saw Nico Rosberg finish second ahead of Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Rain began to fall at the end of Q2 and increased in intensity in the run-up to the final 12-minute session, leading to the 10 drivers who made it through to the top-10 shootout taking to the track on intermediate tyres.
The rain quickly abated, however, and the times began to drop rapidly. Vettel was first across the line with a lap of 1m20s but within a few minutes Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo chopped almost three seconds off that time before Hamilton dropped the benchmark to 1:16.232.
It was obvious that a gamble on slick tyres was approach and it was Hulkenberg who made the move first. He immediately bettered Hamilton’s time by 1.2 seconds and the rest of the field filed toward the pit lane to swap to ultrasoft tyres.
With the track drying at a rapid rate, after that it was all about timing – attempting to get across the start/finish line at the last possible moment.
And it was the Mercedes drivers who judged it best. As everyone found improvement, Hamilton found the conditions suiting him best and with purple times in each sector he vaulted to the top of the timesheet with a lap of 1:07.922.
Rosberg finished second, half a second off his teamp-mate, while early adopter Hulkenberg who had continued to pound around to post a final time of 1:09.285 that was good enough for third.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished fourth ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button, with Kimi Raikkonen sixth ahead of Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, the second Red Bull of Max Verstappen and the second Williams of Felipe Massa. The chance nature of the session was illustrated, however, by a four-second spread from Hamilton’s P1 lap to Massa’s P10 time of 1:11.977.
The top 10 grid order is set to change though, with second-placed Rosberg and fourth-placed Vettel due to take five-place penalties for tomorrow’s race owing to gearbox changes – Vettel’s as a precautionary measure and Rosberg’s due to an FP3 crash in which his rear suspension broke while running over kerbs at Turn 2.
Rosberg’s suspension issue followed a similar incident for Max Verstappen in free practice, with the Dutchman running wide over the new kerbing, which has been put in place to prevent drivers from exceeding the track limits, and snapping his front right suspension.
And there were more incidents in quialifying. First Force India’s Sergio Pérez suffered a rear suspension failure early in Q1 and then, with just under two minutes left in the opening segment, Daniil Kvyat ran wide at Turn 8 and the right rear suspension of his Toro Rosso collapsed. The failure sent him spinning across the track. The nose of his car hit the end of the pit entry wall and that collision then sent him spinning off into the gravel trap and into the barriers.
It was a a major collision and the session was halted for some time as the car was recovered and the debris was cleared.
However, with 1m44s left on the clock there was still time to for drivers to get out on track and cross the line before the chequered flag fell.
A long line of cars formed up at the pit exit in anticipation of the restart and the wait was too much for the second Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz. As he exited the pit lane smoke began to billow from the back of his car and his session as ended. With yellow flags showing in Sectors 1 and 2 there was no chance of improvement and eliminated at that stage, from P17 back, were Renault’s Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer, Manor’s Rio Haryanto, Kvyat and the Saubers of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr.
Q2 began with a threat of rain in the air leading to a flurry of activity early in the session as the field posted ‘banker’ laps. With the rain holding off as the session entered its final five minutes, both Ferrari and Red Bull made a strategic move for the race by sending their drivers out on supersoft tyres. All four duly set their best time so the session on the red-banded Pirelli tyres and will start on that compound.
Mercedes attempted to respond, pitting its drivers for the harder tyre but then the rain began to fall and they were denied. They will, therefore, start on softer but more fragile ultrasofts.
Eliminated at this stage from P11 back were Haas’ Esteban Gutierrez, Manor’s Pascal Wehrlein, the second Haas of Romain Grosjean, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and the unfortunate Sainz and Pérez.
2016 Austrian Grand Prix – Qualifying
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:06.947 1:06.228 1:07.922
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:06.516 1:06.403 1:08.465
3 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:07.385 1:07.257 1:09.285
4 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:06.761 1:06.602 1:09.781
5 Jenson Button McLaren 1:07.653 1:07.572 1:09.900
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:07.240 1:06.940 1:09.901
7 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Racing 1:07.500 1:06.840 1:09.980
8 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:07.148 1:06.911 1:10.440
9 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing 1:07.131 1:06.866 1:11.153
10 Felipe Massa Williams 1:07.419 1:07.145 1:11.977
11 Esteban Gutierrez Haas 1:07.660 1:07.578
12 Pascal Wehrlein Manor 1:07.565 1:07.700
13 Romain Grosjean Haas 1:07.662 1:08.117
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:07.671 1:08.154
15 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:07.618
16 Sergio Perez Force India 1:07.657
17 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1:07.941
18 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1:07.965
19 Rio Haryanto Manor 1:08.026
20 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:08.409
21 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:08.418
22 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1:08.446