Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position from Lewis Hamilton in the last seconds of qualifying for tomorrow’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
World champion Vettel produced a near-perfect lap of 1.34.870 to edge out the McLaren driver by just 0.104 seconds.
Mark Webber finished third a further two-tenths back ahead of the second McLaren of Jenson Button. The top four are exactly the same as in Melbourne two weeks ago.
Fernando Alonso’s uncompetitive weekend continued as he qualified in fifth, almost a second off the pace, two places ahead of team-mate Felipe Massa.
Renault again impressed with Nick Heidfeld sixth and Vitaly Petrov eighth, fresh from his first podium finish in Australia.
Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi rounded out the top-ten.
For Vettel though it was another marker put down that will deflate his rivals after taking his third consecutive pole position despite being slower than Webber in all three practice sessions.
Vettel said: “It was a challenging weekend until qualifying today. I was happy with the car, but we never really got into a rhythm.
“Yesterday wasn’t as smooth as we hoped for, but we knew the car had speed, so the main thing was to keep believing in it. In qualifying everything worked out straight away.”
But the German was realistic about his chances of winning a fourth race in a row – a feat he has not achieved before in his F1 career.
“It was very close in the end with the McLaren guys, so I’m happy to get pole,” he said.
McLaren’s pace had been obvious in third free practice after Hamilton went quickest and Button was fastest in Q2, but few expected them to push Red Bull so close.
“Both our drivers drove really well this afternoon. Clearly, we’re encouraged by our pace here – but there’s no magic involved: Formula One is all about hard graft,” said team principal Martin Whitmarsh.
“We think our race pace tomorrow ought to be good enough for us to mount a very serious challenge for victory, and that’s certainly what we’ll be aiming for.”
Whitmarsh said he hoped the rain forecasted would stay away because McLaren had the package to challenge Red Bull in the dry.
Rain signals Ferrari’s best chance of challenging for the win though after another poor performance which failed to live up to pre-season hype.
“We weren’t quick enough in Australia and we are not here in Malaysia either, at least not enough to fight for pole position,” said Alonso.
“From what we have seen over these two races, there are two teams who have worked better than us over the winter.”
The midfield pack was as closely packed as ever with Toro Rosso edging out Force India and Williams.
Team Lotus showed some of their pre-season promise after a difficult weekend in Australia as Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli missed out on a place in Q2 by less than half-a-second.
Lotus’ chief technical officer, Mike Gascoyne, said there were mixed feelings within the team.
“It was a very very good day for the team; however we are left feeling a little disappointed because we felt we had a real chance of getting into Q2.
“We had no problems on the cars at all today which meant we were able to show the true level of performance that we had seen in winter testing, and ultimately we were very close to Q2 on merit,” Gascoyne said.
It was a good day for Hispania too as both Vitantonio Liuzzi and Narain Karthikeyan qualified within 107% and will be allowed to race, albeit from the back row.
Classified Qualifying Results:
- Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1.34.870
- Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1.34.974
- Mark Webber Red Bull 1.35.179
- Jenson Button McLaren 1.35.200
- Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1.35.802
- Nick Heidfeld Renault 1.36.124
- Felipe Massa Ferrari 1.36.251
- Vitaly Petrov Renault 1.36.324
- Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1.36.809
- Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1.36.820
- Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1.37.035
- Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 1.37.160
- Jaime Alguersuari Toro Rosso 1.37.347
- Paul di Resta Force India 1.37.370
- Rubens Barrichello Williams 1.37.496
- Sergio Perez Sauber 1.37.528
- Adrian Sutil Force India 1.37.593
- Pastor Maldonado Williams 1.38.276
- Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1.38.645
- Jarno Trulli Lotus 1.38.791
- Timo Glock Virgin 1.40.648
- Jerome d’Ambrosio Virgin 1.41.001
- Vitantonio Liuzzi Hispania 1.41.549
- Narain Karthikeyan Hispania 1.42.574