Lewis Hamilton has claimed his 99th Formula One pole position of his career ahead of the Emilia Romagna GP in a fascinating qualifying session in Imola.
Sergio Perez beat his team-mate Max Vertsappen to line up behind Hamilton in only his second outing in a Red Bull.
The Dutchman meanwhile starts in third place, with both himself and Hamilton lining up on the grid with a set of the medium tyres, with the Mexican splitting the pairing on the soft compound of tyre.
Mercedes were expecting to struggle again coming into the weekend after being on the backfoot during the opening weekend of the season in Bahrain, despite Hamilton claiming victory.
Both Hamilton and his team-mate Valtteri Bottas were top of the timing screens during Friday’s practice, with the Red Bull of Max Verstappen fastest in final practice.
And there was all to play for come qualifying with no clear advantage for any of the top teams – however it was Hamilton’s first flying lap in Q3 that sealed the deal for the brit.
Sounding almost shocked as he crossed the line, Hamilton afterwards said: “The day’s been great, obviously.
“I definitely didn’t expect us to be ahead of two Red Bulls. I think they’ve been so quick this weekend, there were times they were six tenths ahead.
“We didn’t really know where we’d be, but the car was already feeling a lot better from the beginning this weekend, so my respect to the team for the hard work to really narrow down the window.”
Hamilton will have a lonely start to his race tomorrow with his team-mate Bottas starting P8 – with two fast Red Bulls alongside him.
But the seven-time world champion was up for the challenge.
“I love it, I love the challenge,” replied Hamilton.
“I think it’s great finally we’ve got the two Red Bulls there. I think it’s going to definitely make the strategy harder, and it’s going to be a real challenge tomorrow because they’ve got great race pace.
“But I’m just so happy, because the first lap was really, really nice. Really clean and there were some improvements on the second lap, but it wasn’t quite as good as the first one.
“But I’m really grateful, came round the last corner and found out I got the pole and I was super grateful.”
The top three drivers were separated by less than a tenth of a second in the battle for pole, with Verstappen being out-qualified by his team-mate.
Verstappen starts with the same strategy as Hamilton tomorrow on the medium tyres, but was unhappy with the outcome of the day.
“Not so good, in Q3 I went off at turn 3. It was a bit messy and not a very good lap,” admitted Verstappen.
“But it can’t be good every time, so we’ll see what went wrong. But it was definitely not the easiest in Q3.