After an incredibly close final practice earlier in the day, it looked as though Mercedes might have a serious challenge on their hands in qualifying. Max Verstappen topped the times ahead of championship leader Lewis Hamilton, and with aero efficiency counting for more7 and outright engine power for less, you got the feeling that the Silver Arrows could be pushed all the way today.
Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen were first out, with the two Saubers and Stoffel Vandoorne's McLaren also eager to get going. The Ferraris were also out early on the red supersoft tyre, hoping to making it through to Q2 without having to use a set of the ultrasofts that most of the field were on at this early stage. Grosjean was the first to set a time, with his teammate following, albeit after a big lockup into the baseball stadium.
A huge cheer from the crowd could only mean one thing: Sergio Perez had taken to the track and received a standing ovation as he made his way around the track. The hometown hero also thanked his adoring fans over the team radio before getting on to a hot lap. Meanwhile Toro Rosso seemed to be having serious communication issues, as Pierre Gasly was first seen on the pit wall in jeans before sprinting into the garage to get ready to drive as it seemed the team might be able to get him out for a lap after engine issues in FP3.
Out front the Mercedes pair were predictably quickest, with Lewis Hamilton leading Valtteri Bottas, but they were using the ultrasoft tyre. This was in contrast to both Ferrari and Red Bull, who joined the red cars on the red walled tyres and were looking set to easily progress to Q2, especially when Vettel and Verstappen both managed to get within two tenths of the leader's time. Fernando Alonso put in an excellent lap to sit fifth before the final runs, just ahead of Perez and Kimi Raikkonen.
On the final runs it was the Haas drivers who were under threat of elimination, as well as usual suspects Sauber. Williams and Brendon Hartley's Toro Rosso also looked under threat. These final laps were a disaster for both Haas drivers, as they finished dead last, ahead of only Gasly, who of course didn't set a time. The two Saubers impressed to get ahead of Grosjean and Magnussen, but were still eliminated as Lance Stroll just squeezed through in 14th.
Out front the pressure definitely looked on Mercedes, but would their magic engine mode come to their rescue yet again?
Final Q1 standings
All the frontrunners were out on the ultrasofts at the start of the session and the times soon began to tumble. Sebastian Vettel put in a new lap record of 1:17.058, but this was soon bettered by Hamilton, who went just 2 hundredths faster. Not quite into the 1:16s yet!
With Gasly already on the sidelines, things got worse for Toro Rosso as Brendon Hartley ground to a halt with what looked like more engine issues. I'm sure the team will take heart from the fact that they have Honda engines lined up for 2018. The resulting yellow flags wrecked Max Verstappen's first hot lap, but that didn't seem to deter the young Dutchman.
With Hamilton and Vettel scrapping up front, you'd be almost forgiven for forgetting how strong Red Bull were looking so far this weekend, but Max Verstappen soon reminded everyone of this with a bang, and smashed his way into the 1:16s, going over half a second clear of Hamilton's previous best.
Before the final runs, Verstappen led Hamilton from Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen and Ricciardo. Carlos Sainz was best of the rest, followed by the Force India pair and then Nico Hulkenberg in tenth. It looked unlikely the McLarens would come out again as both drivers had massive engine penalties for tomorrow's race.
This only left the Williams drivers still running outside the top ten, so all eyes would be on Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll as they attempted to get through to Q2. They were unable to though, with Massa being the closest but still falling two tenths short of Sergio Perez in tenth.
Final Q2 standings
All eyes were now on the sharp end of the grid for the top ten shootout. Max Verstappen had given both Ferrari and Mercedes something to think about and everyone watching was looking forward to a titanic contest at the front.
The drivers were really struggling for grip in the hot conditions, and Valtteri Bottas had to abandon his first lap after locking up into the stadium section after he seemed to be distracted by a slow, off-line Verstappen. As the first laps came in, Sebastian Vettel led initially with Hamilton second, but with times a quarter of a second off what Verstappen did in Q2 this was unlikely to be enough. This proved to be the case when Verstappen put in a 1:16.574 to almost equal his Q2 time and throw down the gauntlet to the championship leaders behind him.
Behind this tense battle, Daniel Ricciardo was struggling to match his teammate's blistering pace, sitting eight tenths down in fourth, whereas Kimi Raikkonen was having a torrid day, sitting in eighth, and a massive 1.6 seconds down on Verstappen's pace.
As the drivers headed back to the track for their second runs, the world feed graphics showed that Verstappen would be investigated after the session for potentially impeding Bottas earlier in qualifying. More outrage incoming? We will have to see!
As the drivers continued to struggle for grip, the Mercedes drivers could only lock out the second row, with Hamilton ahead of Bottas. Up front, it was Sebastian Vettel who managed to pip Verstappen right at the death, going a few hundredths faster to deny Max his maiden pole. Still, from here the Dutchman will feel that he has a good shot at challenging the Ferrari driver for victory tomorrow.
Final Q3 standings