Title favourite Stoffel Vandoorne claimed a little corner of GP2 Series history for himself on Friday evening, with a fifth consecutive pole position to put himself at the front of the grid for the first feature race of the 2015 GP2 Series championship at the Bahrain International Circuit.
The Belgian's dominating performance under the floodlights in Sakhir meant that he has not been bested in a GP2 qualifying session since before his home race at Spa-Francorchamps last August. However, his Bahrain pole time of 1:39.237s was still not quite as fast as the pole time of 1:38.865s set by eventual championship winner Jolyon Palmer 12 months ago, despite the introduction this season of DRS to the cars which in theory should make the cars around four tenths faster.
CLICK: Full qualifying times from Bahrain.
Track temperatures were some 20 degrees Celsius lower in the evening for qualifying than they had been for the earlier midday practice session, making for very different conditions for all concerned. With only 30 minutes available, unsurprisingly everyone was immediately out on track to acclimatise to the new situation and also to try putting in some early flying laps before the track cooled further.
DAMS' Pierre Gasly was the first driver to set a representative lap time of 1:40.154s on the 3.363-mile, 15-turn grand prix circuit, but he had made some small but telling errors along the way and unsurprisingly he was immediately deposed from the top of the timing screens. Vandoorne instantly rebounding from his practice session mechanical issue to go straight to the top with a lap of 1:39.493s, 0.468s second ahead of Campos Racing's Rio Haryanto.
Morning pacesetter Jordan King continued to shine for Racing Engineering with the third fastest time ahead of Gasly's team mate Alex Lynn, with Trident's Raffaele Marciello also popping up into fifth ahead of the French driver. However things soon went sour for Marciello on his second flying lap when his Trident appeared to get stuck in second gear, forcing the Italian to limp back to pit lane for urgent attention.
Vandoorne was narrowly unable to improve his benchmark time with his next flyer, but Campos Racing's Arthur Pic dramatically closed the gap with his follow-up effort of 1:39.630s to go ahead of King whose second effort had also been faster, putting him 0.277s off Vandoorne's provisional pole. Haryanto hung on to fourth place by just under a hundredths of a second from Nobuharu Matsushita, with Gasly having in the meantime shaved a tenth and a half off his initial time to hold onto sixth place ahead of Russian Time's Mitch Evans and the Rapax of Sergey Sirotkin.
With the first set of soft compound Pirelli tyres now having well and truly given up their best, the drivers were back onto pit lane for a new set along with any set-up tweaks that might help them improve in the second half of the session. In what appeared a reprise of the start of the session, the cars piled out of pit lane and returned to action en masse
once the clock indicated ten minutes remaining, although Marciello was late to join the fray as Trident finished off the repairs on his gearbox.
Lynn was the first to make a big move forward with a new time of 1:39.599s to leap from ninth place up to second place, but Vandoorne immediately moved the goal posts just a little bit further out of reach of the competition by punching in a time of 1:39.237s. The Honda-backed Japanese F3 champion Matsushita then showed that it was very much an team affair when he slipped ahead of Lynn for a provisional ART lock-out of the front row, albeit still three tenths short of claiming pole for himself.
Pic by contrast wasn't able to improve on his earlier time and instead had to be content to cling on to fourth place, with Marciello just 0.011s behind him when the Trident driver finally got in his delayed follow-up flying lap to take fifth ahead of King. A strong late effort from Norman Nato put the Arden into seventh ahead of King's team mate Alexander Rossi, but the final effort from Gasly fell foul to a late mistake and the Frenchman will be disappointed with being pushed down to ninth place on the grid putting him alongside Sirotkin in tenth.
With Hilmer Motorsport not taking part this weekend, the remaining 24 cars all comfortably made it inside the required 107 per cent time to ensure they make the start of the feature race. Swiss rookie Zoël Amberg recovered from losing most of the earlier practice time, and while starting last on the grid he was still respectably within two and a half seconds of Vandoorne's pace when the chequered flag came out.
The floodlit qualifying was very much the odd one out as far as GP2 sessions go at Bahrain this weekend, with both of the upcoming races back in the sunny daytime conditions when only mad dogs and racing drivers dare to venture out. The 32-lap feature race 1 will get underway on Saturday at 1.10pm (11.10am BST) with the 23-lap sprint race 2 set for Sunday afternoon at 2.15pm (12.15pm BST).
See full qualifying times from Bahrain.