Lewis Hamilton got McLaren's 2012 challenge off to a perfect start as he claimed pole position in Australia ahead of Jenson Button.
McLaren dominated qualifying with Hamilton posting a 1:24.933 to edge Button by 0.152s while Romain Grosjean, starting his first full season in F1 with Lotus, was third, a further 0.128s off the pace.
Michael Schumacher claimed an impressive P4 ahead of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel while Nico Rosberg could only manage eighth.
Qualifying 1It was a bright sunny Melbourne that greeted the F1 teams at Albert Park on Saturday in contrast to the showery conditions of Friday. The already dusty track was cleaning up after the Aussie V8 touring cars had spread fuel on the start finish straight following a shunt in their support race.
Timo Glock and Charles Pic of the Marussia team got the session underway with Glock setting a sluggish 1:32.997 to prove that the timing screen was working, unlike the official F1 timing screen on F1.com.
Sebastian Vettel was out early in his Red Bull Racing RB8 and like all the front-runners at this stage he was opting for the medium tyre. Just as last season, the object of Q1 was to get through the session without using a set of faster, soft tyres. Vettel ran off track at Turn 1 in his early attempt at a flying lap and Lewis Hamilton followed suit a few minutes later.
The under-tested HRTs, which had run so few laps on Friday, were already clogging up the circuit and Narain Karthikeyan held up Fernando Alonso's first flying lap and stayed in front across the start-finish line to impair the next one, too. At the end of the session the stewards were going to consider the moves of Car 23 (Karthikeyan) with Car 5 (Alonso) and also Car 7 (Schumacher) with Car 16 (Ricciardo). The hapless Karthikeayn also impeded Vettel on one of his laps.
Initially the cut and thrust of qualifying proved what we had been expecting from Winter testing, that the cars would be very close. With over half the session gone there were 12 drivers within a second of each other. Michael Schumacher's new W03 survived a massive launch off the kerbs in Turn 1 and the veteran driver looked to be in his best form since his return to F1.
At the top of the timesheets it was the McLaren of Jenson Button that set the first sub 1:26 second lap. At the bottom it was a case of the usual suspects of the HRTs, Marussias and a new found friend in Felipe Massa, lingering in P19 only able to put in a 1:28.9 lap, considerably slower than Fernando Alonso who was up in P7.
It was also surprising to see the Force Indias lagging back in P15 (Hulkenberg) and P17 (DiResta). Hulkenberg made himself safe and Paul DiResta moved up to P11 with two minutes, twenty seconds left on the clock. While this was happening, Jean-Eric Vergne showed that he will be a force this year by going fastest of all on the softer tyre.
As the clock ticked down, the cars near the danger zone opted for safety by putting on softer tyres, Felipe Massa managed to edge out of the drop zone by moving himself into P16. This put returning World Champion Kimi Raikkonen into the drop zone in P18. With Romain Grosjean near the top of the timesheets in the other Lotus, the car obviously had the performance to get him out of trouble, but Kimi thought he had another lap left to improve his time.
"I slowed down because we were supposed to have time for one more lap and I guess we didn't. Nobody told me when I slowed down that I had to hurry up. There's no point to blame anybody and everyone is as disappointed as me. It's a bad start."
Just to prove what he could have done, Grosjean went P3 on the softer tyre. Raikkonen was left stranded in P18, sparing the blushes of Felipe Massa who had dropped back down to P17 when the session ended.
So out went: 18.Raikkonnen, 19.Kovalainen, 20.Petrov, 21.Glock, 22.Pic, 23.de la Rosa, 24.Karthikeyan.
It will have been a big disappointment for the Caterham team not to have got one of their cars into Q2 after a good winter testing. Kovalainen got blocked by an inevitable HRT but didn't think he would have escaped the bottom seven. Both HRTs failed to make the 107% time.
Qualifying 2With such a tight field there was no team enjoying a large enough advantage to carry the medium tyre in Q2.
Having fared badly in the opening session, Paul DiResta was out straight away on a set of used soft (Option) tyres. He set a 1:27.304. Sebastian Vettel was the first driver into the 1:25s, going top of the timesheets and inducing a feeling of 'déjà vu' or, in a more depressing sense, 'here we go again'. That didn't last long because Lewis Hamilton stepped in with a 1:25.626 to take P1.
Fernando Alonso had already set a good time in his Ferrari F2012 - good enough for P5 -when he appeared to put his left rear tyre on the grass and the car immediately swapped ends and went off into the gravel at Turn 1 - session over for the Spaniard. In fact the whole session had to be red-flagged while his car was recovered and craned out. He stomped back to the pits keeping his helmet on all the while, a sure sign of his frustration.
His team-mate, Felipe Massa, was still struggling and could only manage a 1:27.497 almost two seconds away from the P1 time. Which was then taken down to 1:25.4 by Nico Rosberg with Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher slipping into P2 behind him - both drivers taking advantage of unlimited use of Mercedes controversial DRS system that other teams believe is pushing the borders of legality.
Although he had no car to compete in Q3, Alonso's time kept him in the top ten right until the dying stages of Q2. The Mercedes boys were on top followed by the McLaren lads, a fantastic Romain Grosjean and the two Red Bulls.
It was then we got one of the sensations of qualifying with Pastor Maldonado setting the fastest first sector and going P7 ahead of Webber. The new pairing of Williams and Renault had certainly improved things - they spent most of last season avoiding Q3 and had made it through on the first attempt in 2012. Team-mate Bruno Senna didn't look nearly as quick.
Daniel Ricciardo put his Toro Rosso up to P10 - making it two Aussies into Q3 for the first time ever and finally demoting Alonso to P11. Team-mate Jean-Eric Vergne showed that the two Toro Rossos were likely to be slugging it out all the way this season by finishing the session just behind Ricciardo on P11 pushing Alonso to P12. Felipe Massa could manage only a dismal P16 ahead of the non-running Sergio Perez.
So out went: 11. Vergne, 12.Alonso, 13.Kobayashi, 14.Senna, 15.Di Resta, 16.Massa, 17.Perez.
Despite having a lot more attempts than Alonso, Massa couldn't get his F2012 in front of Alonso and finished a second down on his team-mate. Paul Di Resta was a disappointing distance off Nico Hulkenberg who proved that the Force India had Q3 pace. Similarly Bruno Senna was a long way off Maldonado. However the biggest losers were clearly Ferrari finishing 12th and 16th. Alonso looks to have found a way at controlling the F2012 and would surely have got into Q3 given more laps on a track that was gaining speed.
Last season we were used to seeing Sebastian Vettel cruise through the opening two sessions of qualifying and then producing a banzai effort in the last few minutes to grab pole. Would it be the same in 2012?
Nico Rosberg was first out on track and this was surely his best ever chance to take a pole position. He went out on a set of used option tyres but a big mistake on the exit of Turn 14 blew the lap. His provisional P1 of 1:25.847 was never going to be good enough.
This was underlined with a vengeance seconds later when Lews Hamilton flashed across the line with a remarkable 1:24.922 - Lewis fastest in Sectors 1 and 3 but slower in the middle sector.
Michael Schumacher slotted into P2 with a 1:25.7 ahead of Jenson Button in P3. It was then that Sebastian Vettel showed that he meant business taking P2 off Schumacher, however the RB8's time was almost three quarters of a second off Hamilton, a vast time difference to make up, even for a wunderkind.So after the first runs the order was: Hamilton, Vettel, Schumacher, Button, Grosjean and Rosberg. Mark Webber opted for just one attempt at pole and tyre-levered his car ahead of the pack to take P2. That meant less than a tenth separated four cars from P2 to P5 Button.
However the three cars behind Webber were all going again.
Maldonado, on his one flying lap put in a very good Sector 1 again, but Jenson Button showed he meant business by going fastest of anyone. Michael Schumacher picked up the pace, unlike team-mate Rosberg who locked up his front left tyre which compromised his second flying lap. Hamilton, having put in an almost unbeatable time, chose to go out late.
Across the line they came. Schumacher grabbed P2 off Webber, Grosjean grabbed P2 off Schumacher, Button took P2 off Grosjean and came within a whisker of Lewis Hamilton, little more than a tenth down. Vettel made a mistake and could only manage 6th. Hamilton, seeing his time was not going to be beaten had the luxury of returning to the pits and not stressing his tyres further.
Mark Webber who ended up in P5 revealed that half the reason for their drop-off in pace was a faulty KERS. "I don't know what happened to Seb on his last lap, it looks like he made a mistake. I didn't have KERS either but I'm satisfied with the job I did."
However the plaudits go to the McLaren team and the remarkable Franco-Swiss driver Romain Grosjean who clinched the first three places. With Rosberg making uncharacteristic mistakes and Red Bull not 'fully fit' they probably won't have it this easy again.
01. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m24.922
02. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m25.074 + 0.152
03. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m25.302 + 0.380
04. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m25.336 + 0.414
05. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m25.651 + 0.729
06. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m25.668 + 0.746
07. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m25.686 + 0.764
08. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m25.908 + 0.986
09. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m26.451 + 1.529
10. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari No time
11. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m26.429 + 0.960
12. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m26.494 + 1.025
13. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m26.590 + 1.121
14. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m26.663 + 1.194
15. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m27.086 + 1.617
16. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m27.497 + 2.028
17. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari No time
18. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m27.758 + 1.576
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m28.679 + 2.497
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m29.018 + 2.836
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m30.923 + 4.741
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m31.670 + 5.488
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m33.495 + 7.313
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m33.643 + 7.461