Lewis Hamilton is proving to be this year's qualifying king as he beat Jenson Button to the coveted pole position in McLaren's second lock-out of 2012.
The McLaren driver posted a 1:36.219 to secure his second pole position of the Championship. It was McLaren's first ever pole position at the Sepang circuit. A late charge after the chequered flag put Button up into second, 0.149s behind his team-mate.
It also knocked Michael Schumacher off the front row by 0.023s as the Mercedes driver recorded his best qualifying position of his comeback.
Mark Webber was fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, who will drop five places after his gearbox was changed, and Sebastian Vettel, who opted to qualify on the harder option Pirelli tyres.
With the track having dried from Free Practice 3, in which Nico Rosberg went fastest in his Mercedes W03, the ambient temperature was at 32C and the track at 45C.
Pirelli estimated that there was around 0.5 seconds between the medium Option tyre and the hard Primer tyre, and that many teams would be saving tyres if they could. The weather forecast for the session was uncertain and so despite it being 20 minutes in length and liable to get faster towards the very end, almost all of the teams were out straight away with Vettel and the HRTs waiting the longest to take to the circuit.
Paul DiResta set P1 at 1:38.927 for Force India, followed by Pastor Maldonado 1:38.190, Kimi Raikkonen (who having changed a gearbox would take a five-place grid drop) 1:37.961, Lewis Hamilton 1:37.984, Jenson Button 1:37.827, Nico Rosberg 1:37.538 and then Michael Schumacher rounded that off claiming P1 with a 1:37.538.
The cars were set up for multi-lap runs on the harder tyre and after a quick lap they would ease off and put in another fast one. Thus Jenson Button was able to go faster and split the two Mercedes before Michael came round again and lowered his fastest time to a 1:37.517 - significantly when Button came back into the garage he radioed "there's nothing left on the tyres".
All eyes were fixed on Felipe Massa's predicament. The under-pressure Brazilian had been given a completely rebuilt chassis for the race to try and get to grips with his one second plus defecit to Fernando Alonso. After the first runs it didn't look good with Massa again over a second slower than Alonso who was in P8 - Felipe back in P18 was in the dropzone.
With five minutes of the session to run the dropzone was: 14.Perez, 15.Senna, 16.DiResta, 17.Vergne, 18.Massa, 19.Petrov, 20. Kovalainen - plus the Marussias and HRTs much further back in time differences and unlikely to get any higher.
Massa had no option but to go for the softer Option tyre and promptly put his Ferrari F2012 into P11 and relative safety. Everyone from Alonso in P8 downwards went for another run, most on the Option, but some - such as Mark Webber - on the harder Prime.
Massa's fast lap had put Jean-Eric Vergne in the P18 ejector seat - and the Toro Rosso looked in trouble with a huge vibration from a flatspot on the front right tyre. He had to come in early as he couldn't improve and then didn't have enough time to get in and out on a new set. Thus Fernando Alonso, who had set off on a set of Options was able to come straight back in.
Mark Webber, still on the Primes, showed what could be done with the harder tyre and went P1 with a 1:37.172. Elevated himself from P17 to P1.
So out went: 18.Vergne, 19.Kovalainen, 20.Petrov, 21,Glock, 22.Pic, 23.de la Rosa, 24.Karthikeyan
It had been a good session for the HRT team getting both cars inside the 107% time. It was curious to see Kovalainen, who like his fellow Finn had a five-place grid penalty, go out for a final run using up more tyres, when he was already destined for the back of the grid. He managed to squeeze ahead of Vitaly Petrov who had headed him up to that point and who only completed six laps to Kovalainen's nine.
With most teams hoping to restrict their running in Q2 to just one timed lap there was no immediate rush to the end of the pitlane when the green light went on. The two Saubers emerged first and Perez started things off with a sluggish 1:39.043 compared to Kobayashi's 1:38.158. This was blitzed by Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus with a sensational 1:36.715. In response, Button could only manage P2 and Hamilton P3.
Hamilton's time looked as though it might have been compromised by an off-track excursion from the Williams of Pastor Maldonado which went off at high speed, through the gravel trap and out the other side, bringing out the yellow flags. It caused Nico Rosberg to abort his fast lap as Maldonado limped back to the pits to work out which bits of his car were now missing. Mostly turning vane.
Rosberg set a 67-second Sector 3 turning his could-have-been-quickest lap into a two second plus lap and then put his car into P6.
Running into the last four minutes at the sharp end it was: Raikkonen, Button, Hamilton, Webber, Vettel, Rosberg, Schumacher and Kobayashi - with some fast cars yet to seta time.
In the drop-out zone and nearby: 7.Schumacher, 8.Kobayashi, 9.Alonso, 10.Ricciardo 11.Massa, 12.Perez, 13.DiResta, 14.Hulkenberg, 15.Maldonado, 16.Senna, 17.Grosjean.
Grosjean jumped to P4, Massa moved up to P9, displacing Alonso out of the top ten for a few seconds until the Spaniard put in the P6 time. Perez edged forwards to P8 pushing Michael Schumacher to P10. Paul DiResta could only manage P13 and Senna P12.
It was the second Williams car of Maldonado - with running repairs - that set the cat among the pigeons by claiming P9 pushing Rosberg to P10 and Schumacher to P11 and out. However both Mercedes were still on track, as was Maldonado, although now on fast degrading tyres. Any anxiety in the Mercedes garage was soon alleviated with Rosberg going P3 and Schumi P4.
So out went:
11.Maldonado, 12.Massa, 13.Senna, 14.DiResta, 15.Ricciardo, 16.Hulkenberg, 17.Kobayashi
Senna will be glad to be much closer to Maldonado for this race and DiResta pleased to have got the better of Hulkenberg. Understatement of the session from Paul DiResta: "Yeah, it's quite warm out there."Qualifying 3
With cockpit temperatures as high as 68C we entered Q3. Raikkonen started off festivities with a kerb-bashing 1:36.837 - slower than his Q2 time. Button took provisional pole with a 1:36.627 and Hamilton set a mighty 1:36.219.
The Brit survived a nasty tyre-locking moment that might have impaired his tyres watched by Alonso in the pits - who smiled. Alonso, Perez, Schumacher and Rosberg had used up extra sets of tyres to get to Q3 would go for just one run.
After the first runs the order was: Hamilton, Button, Raikkonen, Webber, Grosjean and Vettel.
Out came the Mercedes and the problem in judging the braking - less evident in Melbourne - affected Nico Rosberg who flatspotted his right front tyre on the way to setting P3. No such problem for Michael Schumacher who set the fastest first sector of anyone, a middle sector two tenths quicker than Rosberg and split the MccLarens by claiming P2. It was now: Hamilton, Schumacher, Button, Rosberg but with Schumi much quicker than Button.
Out came the Mclarens, Red Bulls and Raikkonen. Unusually both McLarens were slower in the first sector than they had been on their opening laps with Hamilton as much as three tenths down on Schumacher's time. This allowed Button to go faster in the final aero-sensitive sector and he crossed the line to reclaim P2 - 0.15 down on his team-mate, just like Melbourne.
With pole assured Hamilton could abort his final run and save tyres. Mark Webber had jumped to P4 and Kimi Raikkonen slipped to P5 despite going four tenths quicker. He would take a 5-place penalty but had proven that he could pilot the Lotus to a quicker time than the highly rated Romain Grosjean.
Most interesting of all was that Sebastian Vettel had gone for the harder tyre on his final run and was likely to run furthest in the race tomorrow. Whether it will be an entirely dry start at Sepang remains in the hands of the gods. Statisticians are still working on the last time that Mclaren loked out the front row for two races in succession.
01. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.219s + 0.149
02. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.368s + 0.172
03. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.391s + 0.242
04. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m36.461s + 0.415
05. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m36.461s + 0.439
06. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m36.634s + 0.445
07. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m36.658s + 1.347
08. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.664s + 1.479
09. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.566s + 0.242
10. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m37.698s + 1.370
11. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m37.589s + 0.874
12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m37.731s + 1.016
13. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m37.841s + 1.126
14. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.877s + 1.162
15. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.883s + 1.168
16. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m37.890s + 1.175
17. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.069s + 1.354
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m39.077s + 1.905
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m39.306s + 2.134
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m39.567s + 2.395
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m40.903s + 3.731
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m41.250s + 4.078
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m42.914s + 5.742BR>24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m43.655s + 6.483