But when it counted in the final session Hamilton turned the tables on his team mate to take his second consecutive pole position.
The Ferraris line up on the second row – but tomorrow’s race looks like being another McLaren affair.
Sebastian Vettel impressed in the morning practice by splitting the two McLarens at the top of the time sheet.
Fernando Alonso was fastest of all, but the BMWs and Ferraris looked to have the McLarens in their sights.
Just how tight the battle to get through the first part of qualifying would be was demonstrated when David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Mark Webber all set 1’13.4s laps at the top of the timing screens.
They were quickly displaced as the faste runners came out. Lewis Hamilton was the first of the front runners to set a time, posting 1’12.563 on the harder tyres, which was just 0.4s quicker than Heikki Kovalainen’ Renault.
But the BMWs proved able to set even faster times on their second laps. Heidfeld’s 1’12.543 put him ahead of Hamilton and Vettel went fourth with 1’12.711. Felipe Massa was two hundredths slower than Vettel, but when the Brazilian tried a second lap he couldn’t go faster.
Fighting for survival were the Spykers, Super Aguris, Scott Speed and Rubens Barrichello. The session ended in a flurry of activity as the slower drivers came out again on softer tyres.
David Coulthard was struggling to improve his time and spun off at turn eight. As the clock hit zero half the field were in the middle of laps.
Davidson set a great lap to take tenth – but team mate Sato in 18th was knocked out of qualifying. A late lap from Barrichello saw the Honda driver escape.
By the end of the session five drivers had set 1’13.4 laps. Coulthard and Webber – separated by a thousandth of a second – made it through. But for Alexander Wurz 0.016s was the cruel margin between surviving and being knocked out.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part one
17. Alexander Wurz 1’13.441
18. Takuma Sato 1’13.477
19. Vitantonio Liuzzi 1’13.484
20. Scott Speed 1’13.712
21. Adrian Sutil 1’14.122
22. Christijan Albers 1’14.597
Trulli’s time was seven-thousandths quicker than he managed in the first part of qualifying but Coulthard found six-tenths on his earlier time. His 1’12.897 put him quickest until team mate Webber took a tenth off it.
Hamilton moved to the top with a 1’12.065 but Alonso again had a crucial tenth in hand and set a 1’11.926 to go fastest. Massa and Heidfeld slotted in behind Hamilton.
With four minutes of the session left the Toyotas, Hondas, Davidson and Fisichella occupied the last six places. But Ralf Schumacher’s time was eight tenths slower than his lap in the first part of qualifying, which suggested he was capable of making it into the top ten.
Unusually, Kimi Raikkonen was among the drivers taking to the track for a second time, not feeling that his fifth placed time was safe. He was quickly vindicated as both Renaults went faster than him, until he set the third fastest time.
Trulli set a 1’12.828 that edged Coulthard out of the running by less than five hundredths of a second – that was the different between tenth and eleventh.
Both the Hondas failed to make it to the final part again – but at least they were both ahead of the Super Aguris – and Trulli beat Schumacher in the Toyota battle again.
Bottom six drivers’ times for part two
11. David Coulthard 1’12.873
12. Ralf Schumacher 1’12.920
13. Jenson Button 1’12.998
14. Nico Rosberg 1’13.060
15. Rubens Barrichello 1’13.201
16. Anthony Davidson 1’13.259
As is becoming customary, Hamilton led the top ten drivers onto the track. These comprised both McLarens, Ferraris, BMWs (including rookie Vettel) and Renaults, plus Mark Webber’s Red Bull and Jarno Trulli’s Toyota.
Hamilton also made a point of getting in a quick lap early on as a banker – but the 1’13.0 lap would not be enough for pole.
BMW elected to use the harder rubber for Vettel’s qualifying laps and put Heidfeld on the soft rubber. Renault and Jarno Trulli also tried the harder rubber.
Massa’s 1’12.703 put him fastest but Alonso and Hamilton were trading fastest sector times. Alonso came across the line with a 1’12.500 but this time Hamilton was quicker – 1’12.385.
Massa dropped to third ahead of Raikkonen and Heidfeld who had both set 1’12.8 laps. But Vettel’s harder tyre gamble didn’t seem to have worked – his time was a second slower than Heidfeld’s.
Despite Hamilton having led the drivers out at the start of the session and Alonso rolling away later the two McLarens arrived in the pits almost together – had Alonso tried to delay Hamilton to prevent him getting a second lap in?
It was academic in the end – very few drivers improved on their second laps. But there was one big exception – Hamilton – who shaved 0.054s off his time and took his second pole position in a row.
The BMWs failed to get ahead of the Ferraris – although Heidfeld remained just eight thousandths slower than Raikkonen. Kovalainen took his best grid slot of the year so far with sixth ahead of Vettel.
Trulli, Webber and Fisichella rounded off the top ten.
For now, Hamilton maintains the advantage over his team mate. But does Alonso have more fuel on board? We’ll find out tomorrow.
Top ten drivers’ times for part three
1. Lewis Hamilton 1’12.331
2. Fernando Alonso 1’12.500
3. Felipe Massa 1’12.703
4. Kimi Raikkonen 1’12.839
5. Nick Heidfeld 1’12.847
6. Heikki Kovalainen 1’13.308
7. Sebastian Vettel 1’13.513
8. Jarno Trulli 1’13.789
9. Mark Webber 1’13.871
10. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’13.953