Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas piped teammate Lewis Hamilton to take a sensational pole position at Imola ahead the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.
The Finn trailed Hamilton by just 0.031s after the first runs, but having topped both opening segments of qualifying, Bottas found the time when it mattered, lighting up the timesheets to take pole by 0.1s.
Mercedes were in a class of their own at the historic and picturesque Italian track, with Max Verstappen unable to get within half a second of the silver cars, but fortunate to get to Q3 at all after encountering a power issue in Q2.
Pierre Gasly, announced at AlphaTauri for 2021 ahead of the weekend, was in scintillating form all afternoon, the Frenchman comfortably in the top four throughout and crossing the line to end up fourth quickest to equal his career best start.
Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo was fifth, his fourth top-five start this season, ahead of Alexander Albon who seemed unhappy with the car, but found a way to at least start inside the top six, albeit it 0.4s adrift of team mate Verstappen.
Charles Leclerc couldn’t repeat his heroics of the last couple of races, but the Ferrari driver was still a solid seventh with Daniil Kvyat making a rare appearance in Q3 for AlphaTauri.
The McLarens didn’t have the pace to compete in the final shootout, with Lando Norris edging ahead of team mate Carlos Sainz for only the second time in the last eight races to complete the top 10.
Bottas found himself in the unusual position of being in the drop zone in Q1 with three minutes to go after a scrappy opening run, forcing him to box for fresh rubber and going again.
He made no mistake this time, the Finn going quickest, 0.008s ahead of Hamilton, with Verstappen in his customary position of third, albeit 0.8s off the pace.
Albon was under pressure, too, but leapt out of the bottom five to comfortably inside the top 10, with Russel reaching Q2 for the eighth time in 12 races.
Renault left it late with both cars to do their laps, particularly Daniel Ricciardo, but both the Australian and team mate Esteban Ocon cruised through as the track got quicker as the session went on.
But there was tension for Lance Stroll. The Racing Point driver was on the bubble, and then got bumped into the drop zone at the death, only to be promoted when Kimi Raikkonen’s lap got deleted for exceeding track limits.
The Finn will start 18th, behind the Haas duo of Grosjean and Magnussen – the latter running wide across the gravel on his last run – with Nicholas Latifi and Antonio Giovinazzi also out.
This was only the second time Giovinazzi, who has been retained for next season, has been slowest of all in qualifying this year – the other occasion being the Spanish Grand Prix.
Knocked out: Grosjean, Magnussen, Raikkonen, Latifi and Giovinazzi
There was high drama in Q2 when Verstappen sounded frantic on team radio as he warned his team he had a power issue. The Dutchman recovered to the pits and was then forced to wait as Red Bull removed bodywork and investigated the issue.
With just a few minutes to go, Verstappen got back out and pumped in a lap under pressure that was easily good enough to get into Q3 – and on the medium compound tyres to boot.
Only the Mercedes duo also managed to get through on the mediums, as Bottas led Hamilton in a one-two again.
Gasly was the star of the session though, going third fastest on the soft tyres, less than a tenth of a second behind the Mercedes, with AlphaTauri team mate Daniil Kvyat also progressing for only the second time in the last 28 races.
It was incredibly close in the midfield, with just a tenth of a second separating Ricciardo in fifth and Sergio Perez in 11th, the Racing Point driver failing to reach Q3 for the first time this year in dry conditions.
He was joined by Esteban Ocon, outqualified by Ricciardo for he 11th consecutive race, Russell, Vettel – who failed to reach Q3 for a ninth consecutive race – and Stroll in getting knocked out.
Knocked out: Perez, Ocon, Vettel, Russell, Stroll
Hamilton set the early pace in Q3, with Bottas edging into second as Mercedes continued to dominate running at Imola. Verstappen was an easy third and Gasly maintained his stunning form to stay inside the top four.
Albon was an encouraging fifth, but that didn’t last long as his time was deleted, leaving him under pressure to put a lap together in the closing minutes. The Thai driver did just that, but he still trailed Verstappen and Gasly, the driver he replaced at Red Bull last year.
Ricciardo found a bunch of time on his second run to leap up from eighth to fifth, with Leclerc comfortably outperforming team mate Vettel again in seventh. Kvyat has been closer to Gasly this weekend than much of this year – and he delivered a solid run to eighth, ahead of the McLaren duo of Norris and Sainz.
The Emilia Romagna Grand Prix kicks off at 13:10 local time tomorrow, which is 12:10 GMT. Can Bottas hold off Hamilton or will the six-time world champion find a way through? Regardless of who wins that battle, if they can bring the Mercedes cars home in those positions, the constructors’ championship will be theirs.