Defending champion Lewis Hamilton edged out his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg to secure pole position, breaking the lap record at the Bahrain International Circuit in the process.
Ferrari was a keen competitor to the Silver Arrows in qualifying, unlike at the previous race in Melbourne when the team had to order their drivers not to take part as a way of conserving tyres.
Hamilton was only fourth fastest after running wide at the final corner on his first attempt in Q3, but he produced the fastest lap of the weekend so far – a time of one minute, 29.493 seconds – when it counted to take the 51st pole of his Formula 1 career.
Rosberg led the way following the first runs in Q3, just under two tenths clear of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. Rosberg improved by more than three tenths of a second on his second attempt, but Hamilton remained 0.077 seconds clear.
Vettel took third position, improving only slightly on his first Q3 effort, while team-mate Kimi Raikkonen dropped time in the first sector on his final lap so ended up fourth.
The rest of the Q3 runners only had sufficient time to complete single runs, thanks to the controversial elimination format being retained for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull was best-of-the-rest, nearly three tenths clear of the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.
Felipe Massa was just 0.002 seconds down in seventh, while Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India completed the top eight.
Romain Grosjean’s Haas and the Toro Rossos of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr all paid the price for staying in the pits after making single runs in Q2.
Hulkenberg was the only driver to attempt two runs in this segment and his second flying lap was enough to lift him to eighth position and knock Grosjean out of the final Q3 spot.
The lack of effort to return to the track despite having time to do so suggested Haas and Toro Rosso strategically preferred free choice of tyres for the race start, rather than higher grid positions.
Less than three tenths of a second covered Grosjean in ninth to Jenson Button in P14.
Verstappen and Sainz ended up P10 and P11, ahead of McLaren-Honda rookie Stoffel Vandoorne – who outqualified team-mate Button on his Formula 1 debut – and the Haas of Esteban Gutierrez and Button.
Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat endured another disappointing qualifying session, ending up P15 in a car comfortably quick enough for Q3.
Sergio Perez and the works Renaults of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer dropped out in Q1, along with both Manors and Saubers.
Perez only had time for one run, which proved insufficient to make the cut as others improved.
Pascal Wehrlein was the star of qualifying and was able to place his Manor-Mercedes in P16 with a last-gasp effort. Great achievement considering the DTM champion was less than three tenths shy of being good enough for Q2.
Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber was 0.034 seconds slower in P17, ahead of Perez, Magnussen (who will start from the pitlane after missing the weighbridge in practice) and Palmer.
Rio Haryanto’s Manor and Felipe Nasr’s Sauber propped up the timesheet.
Both were well adrift of the rest after completing solitary runs and had no time for a second effort.
Nasr’s lap was spoiled by a big lock-up under braking at Turn 1, so he ended up slowest.
The elimination qualifying was out in force for the second time despite unfavourable opinions from the drivers, team bosses and fans. The mixed up grid did not shuffle the pecking order and yet again Mercedes secured the front row.
Hopefully the sport’s rule makers can see this and reinstate the previous qualifying format. Seeing no cars on track as the minutes tick by brings no excitement, thrill or drama. For the television viewers and fans watching track side.
As for Lewis Hamilton, this 51st pole position is a grand achievement not only for the advancement in Formula 1 technology but the ability to fightback. Bring on the Bahrain Grand Prix and the duel in the desert.
Bahrain Grand Prix, qualifying positions:
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m29.493s
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m29.570s
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m30.012s
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m30.244s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m30.854s
6 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Mercedes 1m31.153s
7 Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes 1m31.155s
8 Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m31.620s
9 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari 1m31.756s
10 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m31.772s
11 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m31.816s
12 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Honda 1m31.934s
13 Esteban Gutierrez Haas-Ferrari 1m31.945s
14 Jenson Button McLaren-Honda 1m31.998s
15 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m32.241s
16 Pascal Wehrlein Manor-Mercedes 1m32.806s
17 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari 1m32.840s
18 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1m32.911s
19 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1m33.438s
20 Rio Haryanto Manor-Mercedes 1m34.190s
21 Felipe Nasr Sauber-Ferrari 1m34.388s
22 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1m33.181s