Championship leader Nico Rosberg achieved his twenty-four career pole position in Formula 1 with ease at Sochi, while a power unit failure affected his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton in taking part in the shoot out for P1.
Hamilton had a slight edge over his title rival in the first part of qualifying, but was trailing by nearly half a second in Q2 when he suffered a recurrence of the MGU-H failure that ruined his efforts at Shanghai.
That left Hamilton tenth and without a lap time in Q3, while Rosberg enjoyed a clear path to the front, beating Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari to the top spot by more than seven tenths of a second.
To further Hamilton’s misery, he faces a trip to the race stewards to explain why he failed to follow the proper procedure for rejoining from the Turn 2 run-off area after a Q1 error.
Rosberg was able to lap the Sochi circuit in one minute, 35 seconds mark in Q2 and Q3 comfortably. The Mercedes driver was on for a better lap at the end of Q3 before locking up his brakes and running off track at the end of the long back straight.
Vettel chipped his way into the low one minute, 36 seconds, but the team and the new, updated combustion power unit had no answer for the Silver Arrows’ impressive speed.
Vettel will start seventh following a penalty for changing his gearbox after Friday practice.
That means Williams driver Valtteri Bottas will enjoy his first front row start since the 2014 German Grand Prix, after outpacing fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen by 0.127 seconds.
Felipe Massa was fifth fastest, almost half a second adrift of his Williams team-mate, while Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull rounded out the top six.
Sergio Perez impressively split Ricciardo from Red Bull team-mate Daniil Kvyat by going seventh quickest.
Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso lapped 0.124 seconds slower than Kvyat to end up ninth.
A late improvement from Kvyat in the final moments of Q2 pushed the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz Jr to P11.
Sainz was unable to improve on his last run but remained half a tenth clear of Jenson Button in the better of the McLaren-Hondas.
Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg was P13, reckoning a lap that was nearly half a second adrift of Perez in Q2 to be “as good as it gets”.
As for Fernando Alonso, the double world champion was 0.036 seconds slower in P14, and yet ahead of the Haas pairing of Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez, who were separated by less than a tenth as Grosjean continued to complain about the unpredictability of his car.
The Renaults of Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer were more than two tenths away from making the Q2 cut, but separated by less than a tenth in P17 and P18.
Sauber’s Felipe Nasr lay above the cut-off after his first run in Q1, but he went off at the start of his second run and failed to improve his time.
Nasr wound up just 0.009 seconds shy of Palmer’s time but well clear of Pascal Wehrlein in the best of the Manor-Mercedes.
Marcus Ericsson seemed set to avoid a back-of-the-grid start after a last-gasp improvement, but Rio Haryanto hit back with a late show of his own to return the struggling Ericsson to the bottom of the grid.
Qualifying results, Sochi:
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m35.417s
2 Valtteri Bottas Williams-Mercedes 1m36.536s
3 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1m36.663s
4 Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes 1m37.016s
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m37.125s
6 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1m37.212s
7 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1m36.123s*
8 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull-TAG Heuer 1m37.459s
9 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.583s
10 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes No time
11 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.652s
12 Jenson Button McLaren-Honda 1m37.701s
13 Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m37.771s
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda 1m37.807s
15 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari 1m38.055s
16 Esteban Gutierrez Haas-Ferrari 1m38.115s
17 Kevin Magnussen Renault 1m38.914s
18 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1m39.009s
19 Felipe Nasr Sauber-Ferrari 1m39.018s
20 Pascal Wehrlein Manor-Mercedes 1m39.399s
21 Rio Haryanto Manor/Mercedes 1m39.463s
22 Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari 1m39.519s
*Five-place grid penalty for gearbox change