Championship leader Lewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position for the first Russian Grand Prix on Saturday with teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg having to settle for second.
The pole was the 29-year-old Briton's seventh of the season and 38th of his career, but he felt he could have done better on a new circuit that snakes around the Sochi Winter Olympic park.
"It wasn't a perfect lap I think there was more time in it," said the 2008 champion, who leads Rosberg by 10 points with four races remaining.
"The track surface is great, very smooth but it's got a lot of grip," added Hamilton. "The kerbs are done nicely and the surroundings, being around the Olympic Park is quite an incredible place."
Rosberg had to recognise that Hamilton, fastest also in practice, had been quicker all weekend.
Both were given a scare by Valtteri Bottas, whose Williams was quicker through the first two sectors before the Finn made a big mistake right at the end and was unable to improve on his third place.
"I didn't know at that time it was close to the pole," he said. "I risked it a bit too much in last two corners, went a bit wide and when you go off, it's really slippery."
McLaren's Jenson Button completed the second row while Daniil Kvyat, the only current Russian Formula One driver, will have the home crowd excited after taking fifth place for the Toro Rosso team.
Ferrari, whose record run of 81 successive races in the points ended in Japan, and outgoing champions Red Bull had a difficult session.
Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen qualified eighth and ninth while Red Bull's quadruple world champion Sebastian Vettel managed only 11th.
Force India also struggled as Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez qualified only 12th and 13th respectively.
Brazilian Felipe Massa fared even worse, with an engine problem dumping the Williams driver out in the first phase and leaving him 18th on the grid.
Hamilton will be chasing his fourth win in a row on Sunday, and ninth of the season, while Mercedes look set to wrap up the constructors' championship for the first time.
"It doesn't change much for me in the race but it will be a historic moment for us," said Hamilton. "It's going to be the first time so it's going to be historic for the team, a very special moment."
That might finally bring out the champagne after a tough and dark week, with French driver Jules Bianchi fighting for his life in hospital after crashing into a recovery tractor in last Sunday's Japanese race at Suzuka.
The drivers are all carrying stickers of support on their helmets.