The Brit eventually got himself on the listings, a casual 0.368 seconds slower than his team-mate, but still a chunk quicker than the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, the cars that had looked sharpest in free practice. The Silver Arrows were on super-soft tyres, though, not the ultras everyone else was on.
Bad times for Romain Grosjean of Haas, who struggled from the start; bad times also for Jolyon Palmer of Renault who smacked his car into the barrier after his chassis was rebuilt overnight.
Reasonable times for Fernando Alonso, who dragged his McLaren around and got enough out of it to progress to Q2.
Also spotted: Bernie Ecclestone, surveying the kingdom he built from a balcony above the track.
OUT: Jolyon Palmer (Renault), Stoffel Vandoorne (McLaren), Pascal Wehrlein (Sauber), Marcus Ericsson (Sauber), Romain Grosjean (Haas).
With the leading quartet all on ultra softs this time round, Bottas was on top of the pile, with Raikkonen, Hamilton then Vettel following him.
Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo was urged on by his team to push further and secure his place in Q3, but couldn't manage to do any better than eighth.
Good work from Force India's Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, in ninth and 10.
Also spotted: a helicopter flying ridiculously low over the track.
OUT: Carlos Sainz (Toro Rosso), Lance Stroll (Williams), Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso), Kevin Magnussen (Haas), Fernando Alonso (McLaren).
Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari celebrates qualifying in pole position in parc ferme during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia
Image credit: Getty Images
A bit of drama to start with as Lewis Hamilton failed to notice Nico Hulkenberg's bright yellow Renault right behind him.
"He's driving quite dangerously," complained the Mercedes driver.
Raikkonen took provisional pole, with Bottas behind him - had that stayed the same then it would have been the first all-Finnish front row ever, and the Ferrari driver's first pole in nine years.
Then as the clock ticked down to zero, Vettel clinched it, 0.059 seconds faster than his team-mate had managed - and Bottas and Hamilton were left in third and fourth, with the Brit a full half-second off the pace.
GRID: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes), Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull), Felipe Massa (Williams), Max Verstappen (Red Bull), Nico Hulkenberg (Renault), Sergio Perez (Force India), Esteban Ocon (Force India).
QUALIFYING IN SUMMARY
That's a proper turn-up for the books, and another fascinating twist to this season. An intriguing duel between the Mercedes and the Ferraris, with the Scuderia proving their pace. The Red Bulls were lacking something, with Max Verstappen lagging behind Daniel Ricciardo for most of the session.
Romain Grosjean's terrible day concluded in the worst of ways - with his final flying lap curtailed by yellow flags after Jolyon Palmer's crash. Disappointing showing from the Haas.
ONE TO WATCH
The Force Indias are looking really good - keep an eye on them to spring a surprise or two.