WTCC veteran Yvan Muller held on to edge out Nicky Catsburg by just 0.04secs to claim pole position at round two of the season in Slovakia.
The Frenchman posted a lap of 2min 03.910secs to remain tantalisingly out of his rival's reach as he topped the third and final portion of qualifying for the first time since last year's visit to the same Slovakiaring.
“If my engineers tell me I could have gone even quicker on my Q3 lap, there'll be trouble!" Muller smiled afterwards, "I am as surprised as anyone by my time, but it is in line with the simulations we had done.
"I was pretty sceptical after free practice, but it turns out the engineers were right once again. They urged me to attack a little more, to try and shave off valuable hundredths on the turns and in my line... There's no such thing as a perfect lap, but this one wasn't far off.”
Catsburg came up just four-hundredths of a second shy of giving Lada its maiden WTCC pole, but finished Q3 ahead of reigning world champion - and current points leader - José María López, who had a tenuous hold on third overall after appearing to impede the Dutchman. The stewards later determined that the Argentine had no case to answer and he will retain the inside of row two for the main race on Sunday.
“I think this further demonstrates how far we have come in the team,” Catsburg claimed, “We have greatly improved the traction which was the weak spot on the car last season and, with the knowledge and experience Gabriele has brought to the team this year, we have made a good step forward. Who knows what would have been possible if 'Pechito' had not been on the track during my lap, but I am delighted with the front row start.”
Honda's Norbert Michelisz will line-up on the outside of row two, despite topping Q2, pushing team-mate, and Paul Ricard winner, Rob Huff back to fifth in the five-car shoot-out.
Thed Björk narrowly missed out on giving Volvo a place in the final phase of qualifying, winding up sixth fastest overall ahead of Tiago Monteiro, Gabriele Tarquini, Mehdi Bennani and Hugo Valente, the latter claiming pole for race one after the top ten is reversed under 2016 rules.
“I was a little surprised to see my pace was enough for P1 in Q1 and I thought that was as much as I could get from the car and maybe I was looking at P5 or P6," Valente commented, "As it happened, I made a small mistake that cost me a couple of tenths and that dropped me back, but fortunately into P10 and my second pole start in two weekends.”
Tom Chilton and Fredrik Ekblom will share row six on the grid for both races, lining up ahead of John Filippi, who was beaten to a place in Q2 by Huff's Honda, Grégoire Demoustier, series returnee James Thompson and Tom Coronel, who struggled with a mechanical problem on his Chevrolet. Ferenc Ficza brought up the rear on his first attempt at a WTCC qualifying session.
The grid was shuffled somewhat in the hour after the session finished, with both Bennani and Ekblom joining Lopez in visiting the stewards' office. While Bennani received a slap on the wrist for apparently impeding Filippi as he returned to the pits, Ekblom was not so lucky and had his times disallowed for missing the call to the weighbridge, dropping him to the rear of the grid.