Spanish Grand Prix qualifying: Lewis Hamilton triumphs in ongoing intra-team Mercedes duel as gearbox issues see Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel grind to a halt

Hamilton takes pole for the third straight race as he looks to continue his dominance over his closest rival Rosberg

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Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg might still be in a class of their own despite all the work their rivals have put into catching Mercedes this weekend, but the intensity of their ongoing intra-team duel for supremacy turned yesterday’s final qualifying session for Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix into another humdinger.

The Englishman had drubbed his German partner in Friday’s practice sessions, but yesterday the tables were turned until right at the end as small changes made to Hamilton’s car overnight had blunted its edge.

“I didn’t know how we’ve done it, but we’ve made this car worse…” he told his crew over the radio as he struggled with massive oversteer during the first session of qualifying and ended up a half second down on Rosberg. The gap was down to 0.2sec in the second, setting up the battle royale for the final session.

Again, Rosberg set the pace with 1min 26.561sec on his first run, but Hamilton took back the initiative with 1:26.288. Then Rosberg did 1:25.400 on his second and final run, before Hamilton responded in the final seconds with 1:25.232.

It was the Englishman’s fourth pole in five grands prix this season. Afterwards Hamilton explained how it had become such a close-run thing. “Often when things are as good as they were on Friday you don’t want to change the car at all, but we did some small things, half a millimetre here and there, in the hope of going faster. But today the track conditions deteriorated and this morning and then during the first two qualifying sessions I had lots of oversteer and the car was inconsistent from corner to corner.

“There’s nothing you can do to change the car during qualifying because of the time available so I was struggling, but in the end I did it by the skin of my teeth without changing anything beyond making small tweaks.

“It was a tough day, and Nico has been driving really well, so I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get pole, but right at end I had to eke everything out of the car.”

Hamilton has been unstoppable in the past three races

Mercedes’ rivals had expected to make inroads into their advantage here, and at one stage Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was within 0.3sec of Hamilton, but both Mercedes drivers redressed that, with Hamilton reopening the gap to the usual second.

It was another bittersweet day for the world champion team, however, as Sebastian Vettel’s woes continued. The man who used to dominate the sport didn’t participate in final qualifying after his car’s transmission failed, and will start only 15th after a five-place penalty for changing his gearbox.

In between the Red Bulls, Ferrari also endured more hardship with Kimi Raikkonen and home hero Fernando Alonso in only sixth and seventh places after being upstaged by Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Lotus’s Romain Grosjean.

Vettel suffered another reliability issue in the final stage of qualifying

Fears over two teams’ future and Russian GP

While things looked rosy out on the track, storm clouds continue to swirl around the paddock. There is increasing unease at the idea of racing in Russia in October, though Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley admitted: “I think unless the British Government advise otherwise and then from that obviously the FIA and FOM, then we are obliged to go, we are contracted to go.”

Right now the smaller teams are more concerned with threatening what action they can to persuade the big six – Red Bull, Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Williams – who vetoed the idea, that some sort of cost cap isn’t just desirable but essential if they are to survive.

Maldonado's Lotus is retrieved after he crashed in first qualifying

Sauber’s hopes of doing a deal that would see upcoming Russian Sergio Sirotkin enter F1 next year have been hurt by the economic sanctions levied by the west, and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said: “There is an overall feeling to reduce costs significantly but now it’s time that we really had concrete steps and of course there are different positions on the table. But it’s important that we find a solution now and implement it.”

At least two teams are struggling to complete the season.

Final Positions after Qualifying:

1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes GP 1min 25.232secs,

2 Nico Rosberg(Ger)Mercedes GP 1:25.400,

3 Daniel Ricciardo(Aus)Red Bull 1:26.285,

4 Valtteri Bottas(Fin)Williams 1:26.632,

5 Romain Grosjean(Fra)Lotus F1 Team 1:26.960,

6 Kimi Raikkonen(Fin)Ferrari 1:27.104,

7 Fernando Alonso(Spa)Ferrari 1:27.140,

8 Jenson Button(Gbr)McLaren 1:27.335,

9 Felipe Massa(Bra)Williams 1:27.402,

10 Sebastian Vettel(Ger)Red Bull No Time,

11 Nico Hulkenberg(Ger)Force India 1:27.685,

12 Sergio Perez(Mex)Force India 1:28.002,

13 Daniil Kvyat(Rus)Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:28.039,

14 Esteban Gutierrez(Mex)Sauber-Ferrari 1:28.280,

15 Kevin Magnussen(Den)McLaren No Time,

16 Jean-Eric Vergne(Fra)Scuderia Toro Rosso No Time,

17 Adrian Sutil(Ger)Sauber-Ferrari 1:28.563,

18 Max Chilton(Gbr)Marussia 1:29.586,

19 Jules Bianchi(Fra)Marussia 1:30.177,

20 Marcus Ericsson(Swe)Caterham 1:30.312,

21 Kamui Kobayashi(Jpn)Caterham 1:30.375,

22 Pastor Maldonado(Ven) Lotus F1 Team No Time

Note: Jean-Eric Vergne has a ten-place grid penalty, but will start 21st as Pastor Maldonado did not set a time.