SOCHI, RUSSIA (AFP) - Nico Rosberg out-qualified his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton to claim pole for the Russian Grand Prix at Sochi on Saturday.
Rosberg, trailing Hamilton by 48 points in the world championship, claimed his third pole of the season by three tenths of a second with a time of 1min 37.113sec. It was the 18th pole of his career and came after a dramatic morning during which Spaniard Carlos Sainz of Toro Rosso escaped injury when crashed heavily at Turn 13 after careering out of control at more than 300 kmh.
"I'm very happy, it's been a difficult weekend without much practice but qualifying worked out well," said Rosberg.
Hamilton, who ran off track in a vain final bid to improve his time and grab his 50th career pole, reflected: "It's been a difficult weekend but Nico did a great job, overall I'm happy."
Four-time former champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari was fourth ahead of team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the two Force Indias of Nico Hulkenberg and Mexican Sergio Perez. Romain Grosjean was eighth for Ferrari ahead of Dutch teenager Max Verstappen in his Toro Rosso and Australian Daniel Ricciardo who was 10th for Red Bull.
After another curtailed practice session during the morning, when Sainz survived his high-speed crash at Turn 13, qualifying began with the two Mercedes men, led by Rosberg, leading the way in dry conditions. Both ran on the harder of the two available tyre compounds.
In the absence of Sainz, only four cars faced the early cut after Q1 and, after a late decision to join the fray, they were led by Fernando Alonso who marked his 250th Grand Prix by winding up in 16th place in his McLaren.
Out with him went Marcus Ericsson of Sauber and the two Manor Marussia men Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi.
It mattered little for Alonso, as he faced a 25-place grid penalty after being fitted with a new Honda engine.
In Q2, Hamilton demonstrated finally that he had learned the circuit by clocking a lap in 1:37.672, faster than his team-mate by six-tenths of a second before Rosberg responded to go quicker still by 0.172sec.
A late effort from Ricciardo lifted him from 13th to eighth while Felipe Massa flopped in his Williams and failed to make the cut into the top-ten shoot-out finishing down in 15th.
"I had traffic on the first lap, then I lost the tyres completely at the rear on my final lap," said a disappointed Massa.
Out with him went local hero Daniil Kvyat in his Red Bull who was 11th followed by Felipe Nasr in the second Sauber, Jenson Button in the second McLaren and Pastor Maldonado in his Lotus.
"I just couldn't get the fronts working," said Button, who added that he was "reasonably happy with his time, but we couldn't have done a time for Q3."
As Q3 began, Sainz was busy in hospital where he was photographed organising a television to allow him to watch the qualifying session and trying to persuade his medical staff to allow him out to race on Sunday.
"All ok!.. Nothing to worry about!" he tweeted. "Already thinking about how to convince doctors to let me run tomorrow..."