The Finn’s best Q3 time of 1:18.348s was just 0.007s quicker than Hamilton, while the two Red Bull drivers Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez were several tenths off the pace as they claimed the second row of the grid.
Carlos Sainz was the highest-placed Ferrari in fifth ahead of Alpine’s Esteban Ocon and McLaren’s Lando Norris, after a shock early elimination for Daniel Ricciardo who missed the cut at the end of Q1.
Ahead of the start of qualifying at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, there was heightened activity at the Mercedes garage as mechanics completed their work reassembling Valtteri Bottas’ car. Meanwhile their McLaren counterparts had themselves only just finished addressing an ECU issue on Lando Norris’ MCL35M. However everyone was ready for action when the lights went green at the end of pit lane for the start of qualifying in bright, breezy and rather cool conditions.
Haas’ Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin led the way out, followed by the two McLarens on medium tyres, including Norris. Mazepin set the first time of the session which was soon bumped off the top spot by Norris and then by Lance Stroll and Antonio Giovinazzi.
The first serious run came from Carlos Sainz with a lap of 1:19.480s, while his Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc had his first lap time deleted for exceeding track limits. His next was nonetheless good enough for second place, but he was soon pushed aside again by a sequence of flying laps from Valtteri Bottas, Max Verstappen and the Alpines of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon.
After an extra warm-up lap, Lewis Hamilton made his presence felt by going top with just under ten minutes on the clock with a time of 1:18.726s. That was half a second quicker than Sainz but his lap was also then deleted, allowing Sainz to reclaim top honours for a few seconds before Bottas went a tenth faster. Hamilton played it safe with his next run which was good enough for sixth place behind the two Red Bulls of Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen. Perez subsequently ran into the gravel at turn 4 but was able to extricate himself, shortly after Alonso had also briefly spun at the same corner as a result of the blustery tailwind conditions.
With time running out, the bottom five consisted of the two Haas drivers (Schumacher and Mazepin) and both Williams (George Russell and Nicholas Latifi), together with AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, while Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel was on the bubble. There was still plenty of time for them to punch in one final effort, and Vettel duly leapt up to fourth place and safety just as Norris was finally able to find some pace to move to the top ahead of Bottas.
Bottas and Hamilton both improved on their final Q1 runs to straddle Norris in first and third respectively, with Ocon also improving to fourth ahead of Sainz, Perez, Leclerc, Vettel, Giovinazzi and AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly. Tsunoda battled his way to safety in 12th and Russell scraped through in 15th by four hundredths, but a late improvement for Ocon had the knock-on effect of producing a shock elimination for Daniel Ricciardo in the second McLaren. Stroll also found himself in the drop zone alongside Latifi, Schumacher and Mazepin as the dust settled.
When the session resumed, everyone hit the track with most sporting the medium compound with the notable exception of Norris, Gasly and Tsunoda. Sainz set the early benchmark with a time of 1:19.560s which was soon bettered by Leclerc. Verstappen was a third of a second quicker still, and then it was the Mercedes drivers’ turn to play their hand with Hamilton finding a totally new gear with a time of 1:17.968s, almost half a second quicker than Bottas. Meanwhile Norris used his soft tyres to slot into third place ahead of Ocon, Perez, Vettel and Verstappen.
While the medium compound was clearly the best tyres to stat the race on, the soft compound was giving other drivers such as Norris such an advantage that Ferrari and even Red Bull were struggling for pace and now risked possibly missing the cut if they stuck to the same strategy. Even Hamilton and Bottas made a precautionary change to the red-walled tyres before their final runs, albeit with the hope of aborting their runs should they not be needed. Only Leclerc stayed on the mediums and he was soon shuffled back by a better effort from the soft-shod Gasly, but the Monegasque then countered with a better lap of his own to ensure safe passage in sixth place.
The final laps flew thick and fast. Hamilton, Bottas and Norris held on to the top spots ahead of Ocon with Verstappen also safely through ahead of the two Ferraris, and Perez cutting it a little fine in eighth ahead of Vettel and Gasly. Just missing out was Russell despite a much improved final run leaving him in 11th place on the Sunday’s grid, with Giovinazzi, Alonso, Tsunoda and Raikkonen also eliminated.
As the final round of qualifying got underway, most of the drivers opted for an extra warm-up lap on their soft tyres. However Verstappen was straight on it and looked set to take provisional pole, only to end up surviving a scary oversteer moment at turn 4 that cost him his lap time for straying outside the track limits. That allowed Bottas to take the top spot by 1:18.348s by seven thousandths of a second from Hamilton, with Perez third ahead of Sainz, Norris and Leclerc.
As the cars came out for their final runs, Hamilton changed to the medium tyres that had worked so well for him in Q2. Bottas followed his team mate’s lead, while everyone else was on the soft compound. Aware that Verstappen hadn’t posted a time yet, the McLaren pit wall cheekily advised Norris “Don’t do him any favours”.
While the Briton did end up pulling to once side rather than block the Red Bull, Verstappen’s time was only good enough to squeeze ahead of Perez for third place. The two Mercedes drivers also couldn’t find any extra time as conditions appeared to have turned against the field, but they still safely achieved a front row lock-out for the team with the Finn denying his team mate a historic hundredth pole – this time out, at least.
Behind the front two rows, Sainz was able to hold on to fifth followed by Ocon, Norris, Leclerc and Gasly while Vettel was the slowest of the ten cars still in contention.