LEWIS Hamilton continued his domination, claiming the 38th pole position of his Formula One career in the inaugural Russian Grand Prix, but only after a major error from Williams’ Valtteri Bottas.
After finishing comfortably quickest in the second and third practice runs around F1’s newest venue, the Sochi Autodrom, Hamilton topped the timesheet in all three qualifying sessions and will lead away the field on Sunday.
There was a scare, though, as Bottas was fastest in the first two sectors of the track on his final flying lap, only to make errors over the final third to finish third behind Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
After winning the last three races to open up a ten-point lead over Rosberg, Hamilton now starts favourite to make it four in a row for the second time this season, as he did earlier in the year with victories in Malaysia, Bahrain, China and Spain.
Showing a return to form, Jenson Button will start fourth in his McLaren, the veteran Briton’s second best grid slot of the campaign.
As for home hope Daniil Kvyat, the young Russian secured his best position of his fledgling career with fifth in his Toro Rosso, to the delight of his fans.
The second McLaren of Kevin Magnussen qualified sixth, but with a five-place penalty for a gearbox change will now drop to 11th.
That promotes Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, along with the second Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel, who will be leaving Red Bull for Ferrari at the end of the season, missed out on the top-ten shoot-out as he struggled with rear grip on his car.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg was 12th, but in also serving a five-place penalty for a gearbox change will drop to 17th for the start that elevates team-mate Sergio Perez, with the Mexican followed by the Saubers of Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil, along with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and Marcus Ericsson in his Caterham.
Ericsson initially dropped out at the end of Q1, finishing ahead of a disgruntled Felipe Massa whose Williams encountered a fuel-pressure issue that robbed him of speed.
With Bottas starting third, it underlined to Massa just what his car was capable of, but the Brazilian will now have to fight his way through from 18th.
Kamui Kobayashi in his Caterham will start 19th, and although Pastor Maldonado qualified 20th, he will drop to the back behind Marussia’s Max Chilton.
Maldonado collected a ten-place penalty in Japan for a sixth change of his Lotus’s engine, but only served five of those positions, resulting in a carry over for this race.
The Venezuelan will now line up 21st, with Marussia running only one car this weekend out of respect for Jules Bianchi who is fighting for his life following a crash into a recovery vehicle at Suzuka.
Following his seventh pole of the season, and the 15th in 16 races for Mercedes, Hamilton said: “Pole is always a great place to start.
“That’s thanks again to the amazing job done by the team who have been constantly improving and moving forwards, so thanks to them we have been able to be on the front row quite often.
“It wasn’t the easiest of qualifyings, but I’ve been able to hook the car up this weekend and I’m really grateful I’ve the first pole at this track.”
It was a case of the one that got away, though, for Bottas, who said: “Maybe I got too much out of the tyres at the start of the lap, so the end was a bit more tricky.
“I risked it a bit too much in the last two corners, went a bit wide in the last one, and that was it.
“I’m upset. It’s not nice to make a mistake which I think cost me one place maximum.”
Despite Bottas’ error, deputy team principal Claire Williams was able to forgive the Finn.
“He was amazing today,” said Williams.
“He’s had a glint in his eye all weekend, and he has clearly got to grips with this track quite quickly.
“He just lost it going into the final corner, but we don’t mind. We like a trier at Williams.”
As Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff remarked: “We were lucky he (Bottas) made a mistake, maybe he just overdrove the car.”
Given the flowing nature of the track, that winds its way through the park that was at the heart of the Winter Olympic Games earlier this year, Hamilton is expecting an entertaining race.
The 29-year-old added: “I really think the race is going to be good to watch, with long straights and being able to follow. It could be one of the better races for a long time.”