A year on from claiming the biggest success of his young career - albeit at a different circuit - Jules Bianchi opened his bid for a repeat in the best possible fashion by claiming pole position as Euroseries drivers dominated Tango Masters of F3 qualifying.
The ART Grand Prix team leader clocked 1min 31.143secs to head the Group A drivers debating the leading 18 spots on the grid, but only moved to the front with a matter of minutes to go before the chequered flag fell, and will be joined on the front row at Zandvoort by rookie team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who lapped just 0.032secs slower than the Frenchman as the best-placed newcomer on the 38-strong grid.
“Being on pole here at the Masters is a nice feeling," Bianchi commented, "Of course, the fact that I can become the first driver to win two Masters titles also gives extra pressure, but I try not to think of that and just drive my race. In free practice, things didn't go that well, but we gradually improved.”
Bottas insisted that there would be no deferring to the more senior driver in the ART camp come raceday, despite accepting the difference between classes since his last Zandvoort appearance.
“Indeed, I know the track, because I already raced Formula Renault here, but driving an F3 car is a completely different affair, so I had to learn a few new things," the Finn admitted, "Of course, though, I will try to win the race tomorrow.”
The second row for Sunday's race will be headed by Signature's Mika Mäki, who had previously shown well in practice but found that his performance plateau'd when it mattered most.
“The start of qualifying was really good for me but, after that, I couldn't improve anymore," he sighed, "Generally, being in front at such a big event like the Masters is great. When you do well here, you can make it in any other motorsport category, but there was no more potential in my car, and we still have to investigate why.”
Roberto Merhi - who, like Maki, headed a stage one qualifying group for new F1 entrant Manor Motorsport - will join the Finn on row after being unable to carry his performance into the second stage of the event's quirky format. The Spaniard clocked 1min 31.538secs in his bid for pole as nine of the ten fastest drivers in qualifying - and 17 of the top 20 - came from the Euroseries.
Stefano Coletti, Jean Karl Vernay and Christian Vietoris - who, like Bianchi, have all won in the Euroseries this season - occupy fifth to seventh places, with Alexander Sims in eighth, ahead of Euroseries refugee Renger van der Zande - now winning races in the British series and highest representative from a UK team - and Henkie Waldschmidt.
Euroseries podium visitor Sam Bird will start from the outside of row six, sandwiched between Thiago Geronimi and British series points leader Daniel Ricciardo, while Walter Grubmuller, the most recent winner in the UK series, will line up only 20th after posting the second-fastest time in Group B, behind Mucke's Marco Wittmann.