CLICK: Full qualifying times from Sochi Autodrom
The first GP2 qualifying session at the brand new Sochi Autodrom in Russia provided ample evidence that the 3.634-mile, 18-turn circuit is capable of providing some breathless action, with pole position in doubt right up to the final seconds.
ART's Stoffel Vandoorne was first on top with an initial flying lap time of 1:47.514s, but he was immediately challenged by Mitch Evans in the home team Russian Time car. Vandoorne reduced his time to 1:46.727s with his second effort, but Arthur Pic - baulked on his first lap by Artem Markelov - finally managed to successfully park the Campos Racing #26 on provisional pole with a lap faster by 0.348s.
Ten minutes into the session, the line-up at the top was comprehensively overturned by a flurry of new fast times that put Vandoorne's team mate Takuya Izawa on top with a time of 1:45.959s, 0.175s ahead of championship leader Jolyon Palmer (DAMS) and Mitch Evans back up into third. Vandoorne improved his own time to make it a brief ART 1-2 at the top before Palmer aced them both with a lap of 1:45.878s to claim provisional pole by 0.087s.
Evans looked on target to beat this but overcooked the final corner instead leaving him in fourth going into the mid-session pit stops, allowing the teams to carry out their final set-up changes and confer on strategy for the final push which started with a little over eight minutes of the 30-minute qualifying session remaining and the sun now dipping very low in the sky.
Evans was quick to get his clean lap in to go top despite being baulked by Carlin's Julian Leal through the final corner, but he was quickly shouldered aside by Pic who punched in a time of 1:45.552s that was 0.177s ahead of Palmer's latest effort as the clock ticked down. Izawa wasn't done yet either and his final effort saw him leap into second spot just 0.123s behind his team mate.
The only question was whether either Vandoorne or Pic had anything left in reserve, and Vandoorne answered the call with an impressive 1:45.402s; just seconds later, Pic crossed the line as well and the same time came up on the screens. It was a dead heat, although Vandoorne picked up pole position for Saturday's feature race by virtue of setting the time first.
It's Vandoorne's third consecutive GP2 pole position in 2014, and also is the second time in succession that Vandoorne and Pic have topped qualifying. Izawa held on to third spot to make it an impressive combined showing for ART. It puts the Japanese driver on the second row of the grid alongside Palmer who was held up on his final run and will be somewhat disappointed to miss out on the four bonus points for pole position, given the margin he'd held over the rest of the field in the earlier practice session.
At least Palmer can be reassured that his hopes of sealing the 2014 drivers championship are well on course after his nearest rival for the title, Carlin's Felipe Nasr, endured a torrid qualifying session. He nearly lost control through the last corner in his first flying lap of the session, and next time was tip-toeing so slowly through the same spot in preparation for his next qualifying run that he completely caught out Stefano Coletti whose Racing Engineering car tapped the back of the Carlin as a consequence and sent Nasr into a half spin.
Nasr was eventually able to put together a decent if unspectacular lap to take tenth place on the feature race grid putting him alongside Arden's Andre Negrao, while Coletti continued to struggle to lay down a competitive lap despite taking advantage of being the only car left out on track during the mid-session hiatus.
The Monagasque driver finally found a measure of pace toward the end of the session and succeeded in taking eighth place in the timesheets, meaning that he will start alongside Campos Racing's Kimiya Sato. Coletti's team mate Raffaele Marciello had a quieter session and slightly more successful as a result as he captured fifth place on the grid, putting him one row ahead on the grid next to Mitch Evans.
Next up at Sochi is the first action of the weekend for the GP3 drivers, with practice at 5pm local time (2pm BST). Qualifying will take place on Saturday morning at 9.30am (6.30am BST) before the final free practice session for the F1 Russian Grand Prix.
The first of the two 17-lap GP3 races is on Saturday afternoon at 1.40pm (10.40am BST) and the first GP2 race will get the green flag at 4.40pm (1.40pm BST) for the 30-lap feature event. All races will be shown live in the UK on Sky Sports F1.
See full qualifying times from Sochi Autodrom.