ART's Esteban Ocon confirmed that he had the measure of Sochi Autodrom this weekend after he was able to clinch his maiden GP3 Series pole position, with a last gasp effort that put him just four hundredths of a second ahead of Jenzer Motorsport's Mathéo Tuscher when the chequered flag came out at the end of a frenzied and fast moving session.
CLICK: Full Saturday morning GP3 qualifying times from Sochi Autodrom.
Dry and sunny conditions for the 30-minute qualifying were in complete contrast to Friday evening's wet, dark and cold practice session. Even so, the 3.634-mile, 19-turn street circuit at Sochi was still in the process of drying out after the soaking it had received in the last 24 hours and as a result, while the track was dry in large stretches there were still plenty of damp patches lying in wait to catch out the unwary who dared drift too wide at any point. Not surprisingly several drivers opted to conduct their initial laps on wet weather tyres while they scoped out the most high risk areas.
Carlin's Jann Mardenborough was one of those as he went to the top of the timing screens early int he session with a lap of 2:05.551s, while practice pacesetter Esteban Ocon was struggling to stay on the track on the Pirelli medium slick tyres and his opening effort was five seconds off Mardenborough's opening time.
However it was clear that the track was now drying fast and that slicks were very much the order of the day. Mardenborough soon pitted to make the change and came immediately back out in time to see his earlier benchmark time comprehensively shattered by championship leader Luca Ghiotto who went three seconds clear in the Trident. Arden's Kevin Ceccon looked on course to better that, but then strayed off track to ruin his flying lap and remind everyone that there were still plenty of dangers out there - especially at turn 8 which was still in shadow and which also caught out Ceccon's team mate Emil Bernstorff, who then had a further scare when he was forced to take evasive action to avoid running into the back of a slow car ahead of him on track going into the final corner.
Status Grand Prix's Seb Morris's enjoyed a brief spell at the top of the time sheets but at the midway point of the session Ghiotto responded with the first sub-two minute lap of 1:59.146s to go almost a second ahead of his team mate, series newcomer Michele Beretta. As the cars returned to pit lane for set-up adjustments and new tyres, the fast-changing conditions meant that fully nine of the 24 cars had still to set a time within 107 per cent of Ghiotto's benchmark - including big names such as Ocon and his ART team mate Marvin Kirchhöfer.
There was no time to lose and it proved a rapid turnaround for the drivers on pit road, and with ten minutes left in the session the cars were all back out on track for their final runs meaning that traffic now became a major issue, with Campos Racing new boy Konstantin Tereshchenko lucky not to make contact with Status Grand Prix's Matt Parry who was in himself trying to get by Aleksander Bosak in the Arden.
Even so, Tereshchenko used his local knowledge to find impressive pace and go top with a time of 1:58.521s, while Ocon finally found his feet in the dry conditions to slip into second place. The times were now tumbling fast, and several fast efforts from Jenzer Motorsport's Mathéo Tuscher briefly put the Swiss teen on top before another cluster of flying laps once again completely changed the picture and restored Ocon to the top with a lap of 1:55.571s.
Ghiotto responded with a 1:54.723s to recapture provisional pole from Alex Palou (Campos Racing), temporarily pushing Ocon and Tuscher down to the second row. Not that anything was settled - Ceccon leapt up to depose Palou from second and then Ocon's next attempt saw the Frenchman go top with a 1:54.100, over six tenths faster than Ghiotto showing just how much the track conditions were improving by the minute.
With that in mind, Ceccon was able to briefly go top with his final effort but Ocon was on his best lap yet, recording purple times in both the first two sectors only to run too deep into the chicane and almost clip the wall in the process. Even so, he had just enough of an edge overall to clinch the pole albeit by less than a tenth of a second, while Tuscher's final effort was enough to slip into the tiny gap for second place ahead of Ceccon.
Palou had to settle for fourth place just ahead of Mardenborough, while Parry ended up in sixth ahead of Ghiotto, Bernstorff, Antonio Fuoco (Carlin) and Morris. After his thrilling early pace, Tereshchenko was repeatedly the victim of traffic and ended up down in 15th place for his GP3 début.
Series veteran Pal Varhaug (Jenzer Motorsport) will have to appeal to the stewards to line-up on the grid at all after technical issues saw him spend the final minutes on pit road meaning he missed out on by far the fastest conditions the session had to offer and therefore failed to set a time within the 107 per cent requirement by the time the chequered flag came out. Carlin's Antonio Fuoco succeeded in narrowly scraped in under the wire despite his car having to be repaired after causing a red flag in yesterday's practice.
Despite the tricky track conditions on Saturday morning there were no major incidents during qualifying, which was especially fortunate as the teams have only a little over three hours before the earlier-than-usual start to the 20-lap race 1 which is scheduled to precede F1 qualifying. It will get underway at 1.30pm (11.30am BST), while the shorter 15-lap race 2 will be on Sunday morning as usual, at 10am (8am BST).
The GP2 drivers are also in action this weekend at Sochi. Having completed practice and qualifying on Friday, the 28-lap feature race gets underway on Saturday afternoon at 4.40pm (2.40pm BST), while the 21-lap sprint race will take the green flag at 11.05am (9.05am) on Sunday morning.
See full Saturday morning GP3 qualifying times from Sochi Autodrom.