A rain shower before the final phase of qualifying at the Red Bull Ring led to a thrilling and unpredictable shoot-out for pole.
Nico Rosberg, who leads Hamilton in the championship by 24 points, posted the second-fastest time on a drying track, but was demoted five places on the grid for a gearbox change.
As such, an impressive display by Nico Hulkenberg will see the Force India driver promoted to the front row with McLaren’s Jenson Button to start an incredible third.
Rosberg headed into qualifying knowing the best he could hope for was a net sixth after he was forced to take on a new gearbox following a crash in final practice. Indeed it was a herculean effort by the German’s Mercedes team just to get him out on track.
While it was initially business as usual in the opening phases of qualifying, a late downpour contributed to a thrilling end to the session.
The ten remaining drivers, including Button – back in Q3 for the first time since the season-ending 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – headed out on track on intermediate tyres.
As the rain eased off, and the surface began to dry out, the times began to tumble and with a little under five minutes remaining a decision was taken by all the drivers to switch to the slick rubber.
With moments left it was impossible to predict who would end up at the top of the order, before Hamilton stole a march on his rivals to end up half-a-second faster than his Mercedes team-mate Rosberg and claim the 54th pole of his career. Hulkenberg, who had looked strong throughout the session, ended up in third with Sebastian Vettel fourth. Vettel however, also received a five-place grid penalty following an unscheduled gearbox change, meaning he will start ninth, with Button, pictured right, bumped up two places to an almost dizzying grid slot of third for the former world champion.
Hamilton, yet to win in Spielberg since its return to the calendar in 2014, said: “It was a really fun session. It dries up here so quickly. It just added to the excitement of the whole thing. At the end it was about getting the last lap in. The previous lap was a good lap as well, but if I’d finished it I would have been right behind Daniel Ricciardo. So, I backed off, which was a big risk, but fortunately it paid off.”
Rosberg, who will not be on the front row of the grid for the first time in 14 grands prix, added: “It was a very exciting qualifying. It was unbelievable how quickly it dried in the end.
“Lewis just did a good job in the very end. Second is OK but the five places will be very costly for tomorrow.”
Much has been made of the new kerbing introduced at the recently resurfaced Red Bull Ring. The theory is that it will deter drivers who have been exceeding track limits in a bid to post a faster lap. The so-called “sausage kerbs” caught Max Verstappen out on Friday – with the 18-year-old Dutchman subsequently describing them as dangerous – before Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat became their latest victim on Saturday. The Russian ran over the kerbing on the exit of turn eight leading to a rear suspension failure. Kvyat was merely a passenger as he hit the wall and sustained significant damage to his car, before coming to a stop in the run-off area.
“I’m sorry, guys,” the red-faced Russian said over the team radio. The session was suspended as the marshals cleared the debris from Kvyat’s shattered car.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen qualified sixth with Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo seventh. A fine display from Pascal Wehrlein sees the German rookie start a career-high 12th for Manor with Button’s McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso only 14th and Britain’s Jolyon Palmer 18th in his Renault.