Sochi, Russia: World championship leader Lewis Hamilton maintained his stunning speed and supremacy with another sizzling lap in Saturday`s qualifying session when he took pole position for Sunday`s inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
Six days after Jules Bianchi`s life-threatening crash at the Japanese Grand Prix, the Formula One show went on with the drivers all wearing `Tous Avec Jules` (`All with Jules`)stickers on their helmets as they raced in front of a capacity crowd at the new Olympic Park circuit by the Black Sea.
As Frenchman Bianchi, 25, remained in a critical condition in hospital in Japan, the 29-year-old Briton, winner of the last three Grands Prix, was fastest with a late lap of the new Sochi Autodrom to finish two-tenths of a second clear of Mercedes team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg.
The German, 10 points behind Hamilton in the championship with four races remaining, pushed hard to catch him, but was almost overhauled by Finn Valtteri Bottas in the final seconds, the Williams driver only missing out on a front row start when he slid off circuit at the penultimate corner.
It was Hamilton`s seventh pole this year and the 38th of his career and, for the Mercedes team another front row lockout, their ninth of the season ahead of Sunday`s race in which they can clinch the constructors` crown, ending Red Bull`s four year reign as team champions.
"Pole is a great place to start," said Hamilton.
"It`s an amazing job done by the team who are constantly improving and moving forwards this year and it`s great to come here.
"It`s a beautiful place. The weather has been amazing and I`m really enjoying driving this track. It was not the easiest of sessions, these guys [Williams] were looking quite strong.
"And hooking up a good lap wasn`t the same as practice of some reason, but I`m really grateful to have pole for first time here... It`s a long run down to Turn One, so it`ll be a tough race."
Rosberg was disappointed, but determined.
"I tried, but I could not match Lewis," he said.
"He has been quicker than me, most of the weekend, here. There are four races to go and they are all important."
"I didn`t know at that time it was close to the pole," said Bottas, of his errors at the final corners that cost him a possible front row start.
"I only knew how close I was to the previous best, which was not bad.
"Looking back, maybe I took too much out of the tyres in the beginning of the lap and the last sector became too tricky. It became difficult in the last few corners.
"I risked it a bit too much in the last two corners, went a bit wide and when you go off, it`s really slippery."
Briton Jenson Button recovered from an undistinguished showing in Saturday morning`s final free practice to take fourth place on the grid alongside Bottas.
Local favourite Daniil Kvyat claimed a rousing fifth place for Toro Rosso to the delight of a capacity crowd in the Olympic Park circuit.
It was the 20-year-old Russian`s best qualifying performance.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo struggled to take seventh in the leading Red Bull, but team-mate and four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel failed to make the cut for the top ten, dropping out in Q2 in 11th place.