The Briton ultimately qualified third, beaten only by the dominant Red Bulls.
But Hamilton ended Q1 on the cusp in 17th place, and was fortunate that Bruno Senna did not improve on his final lap and eliminate the McLaren, which was back in the pits and tumbling down the order as others found time.
"It was quite a shocking session," Hamilton conceded. "I didn't get a lap in and did quite a poor job when the tyres weren't there temperature-wise.
"I had a bit traffic and locked up. Very poor and I'm lucky I got through."
Hamilton remained unsure about his race pace, having struggled in practice two on Friday when most teams were doing race preparation.
He was encouraged by the fact that team-mate Jenson Button - who qualified only 11th - had a stronger Friday.
"I didn't do a long run yesterday, - didn't have great session in P2," said Hamilton.
"Jenson did a great job and had a competitive long run, so I hope I am able to do the same tomorrow."
- Bruno Senna