Sebastian Vettel cast memories of his P11 China qualifying aside to claim pole position for the contentious Bahrain GP.
Although Mercedes were favourites going into the Saturday afternoon session, Nico Rosberg failing to replicate his form from the last two practice sessions and Michael Schumacher's DRS flap failed altogether.
Lewis Hamilton will start alongside Vettel with Webber and Button on Row 2 ahead of Rosberg and an impressive Daniel Ricciardo for Toro Rosso.
With the ambient temperature at 30C, the circuit had heated up to 42C with strong, changeable winds driving sand across the circuit. The conditions certainly caught out Toro-Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne on his opening lap as he slid his car and ruined his first run
Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, (the team playing catch-up from missing FP2 yesterday) put in the first serious time at 1:35.970, Kamui Kobayashi reduced it to 1:35.529, Mark Webber to a 1:35.283, Jenson Button to 1:34.792 and then Fernando Alonso to a 1:34.760.
Both the fancied cars of Nico Rosberg - who had been fastest in final practice this morning - and Michael Schumacher were experiencing problems in the hotter conditions. Michael understeered dramatically on the way to setting the P3 time, while Rosberg ran off the track into gravel and ruined his first run. Lewis Hamilton hadn't done much better producing a big lock-up in the middle sector to ruin his first run.
Both Lotus cars left it till later in the session to come out and make the most of the track's evolution; when they did they took it in turns to occupy P1, first Kimi Raikkonen with a 1:34.552 and then a fantastic 1:34.041 from Romain Grosjean. At this stage everyone had stuck with the harder prime tyres but as the track got faster, the mid-grid decided to play safe by going for the faster option tyre.
With four minutes of the session left the bottom of the grid looked like: 14.Massa, 15.Hulkenberg, 16.DiResta, 17.Kovalainen, 18.Senna, 19.Petrov, 20.Vergne, 21.de la Rosa, 22.Karthikeyan, 23.Pic, 24.Glock (outside the 107% time)
Hulkenberg improved to P4, Glock didn't make it into Q2 but put his car in P21, Paul Di Resta made himself safe in P5, Vergne elevated himself to P10. Jean-Eric's time was critical because on the softer tyres he had failed to beat Schumacher's time and didn't have time to put in another fast lap.
Which meant that Schumacher and just above him Button and Hamilton, didn't have to go out and do another lap provided the usual suspects in the new teams didn't put in a faster lap and on the form so far this season, that wasn't likely. However Vergne's time was quicker than both Vettel and Webber, and so they both had to go out again.
While all this was happening Sergio Perez put his Sauber into P1 with a 1:33.814 and the two Red Bulls used the evolution of the track to take P3 and P6 on the harder prime tyre.
With less than a minute on the clock the exit seat of P18 was occupied by Pastor Maldonado, and it was 16.Schumacher, 17.Vergne, 18.Maldonado. But when Pastor grabbed P13 in the dying seconds that left Vergne elminated in P18 and Michael on the edge in P17. Schumacher was still in the garage.
And then Heikki Kovalainen sprung the surprise of the afternoon by putting in a fantastic lap, a second quicker than his team-mate to go to P17, pushing Michael into P18 and out.
So out went: 18.Schumacher, 19.Vergne, 20.Petrov, 21.Pic, 22.de la Rosa, 23.Glock, 24. Karthikeyan
For all the criticism heaped on the slower cars it's well to note that the Indian driver's time was two seconds inside the 107% time. The obvious casualty of the session was Michael Schumacher who revealed that he would have gone out on track if he could but his DRS flap - or as he called it, the RFA - Rear Flap Adjust - wasn't working. With Rosberg potentially on pole for the race it was not a happy position.
Seven drivers had saved soft tyres after Q1 - the McLarens, Red Bulls and Lotus and the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg.
Pastor Maldonado was already out of his Williams and getting changed. The KERS had failed on his car and he was already facing a 5-place penalty for a replaced gearbox.
With the track getting faster towards the end of each session Force India still came out early with Paul DiResta setting P1 at 1:35.677, Nico Hulkenberg improving it to 1:35.325, Felipe Massa reducing it to 1:34.861, Sergio Perez putting in a 1:34.257 before Lewis Hamilton blew them all away with a 1:33.209
Behind Lewis, Nico Rosberg set P2, Jenson Button P3, Mark Webber then took P3 and Vettel weighed in with a P5.
Going into the final four minutes the danger zone was: 7.Kobayashi, 8.Alonso, 9.Perez, 10.Senna, 11.Grosjean, 12.Ricciardo, 13.Massa, 14.Hulkenberg, 15.DiResta, 16.Maldonado (out of the car), 17. Kovalainen (not run yet)
With tyre management critical it was now a question of who would go out again. Kimi Raikkonen felt he was safe in P6 and the five faster cars above him sat it out. Everyone else took to the track.
Across the line they came. Nico Hulkenberg grabbed P8, to the delight of Felipe Massa's engineer Rod Smedley his driver took P9 (ahead of Alonso who was now P10). Paul DiResta then put his Force India into a fantastic P5 pushing Alonso to P11.
While all this was happening the Lotus of Romain Grosjean was setting the timing screens purple in Sector 1. He needed to, he was back in P15. Ricciardo crossed the line in P7, Perez re-established himself in the top 10 with a P8, Kobayashi could only manage P10 which was then demoted by Fernando Alonso taking P4. Seconds later it became P5 as Grosjean finished his hit lap to put the Lotus in P3.
The result of Grosjean's top ten time meant that Kimi Raikkonen had been pushed out to P11. So out went: 11.Raikkonen, 12.Kobayashi, 13.Hulkenberg, 14.Massa, 15.Senna, 16.Kovalainen, 17.Maldonado
There was just 0.7 of a second between P1 and P14, Felipe Massa, who ended up 0.5 of a second behind Alonso. The celebrations had been premature.
Only five cars went out on track at the beginning of Q3 - Vettel went out first on a set of scrubbed soft tyres and saved a new set for his final run. Webber, Button and Hamilton all went on new sets. Alonso followed them out on some scrubbed softs having used up all his new sets getting himself into Q3.
Despite a lock-up into the downhill Turn 10 Mark Webber set a fastest-so-far 1:32.785 for provisional pole, seconds later Lewis Hamilton took it off him with a 1:32.671. Button could only grab P2 with a 1:32.711. Vettel, despite using an older set of tyres was only 0.2 adrift in P4 after the initial run and Alonso returned straight back to the pits. Neither he or DiResta would register a time in Q3. Both put in sector times and then came straight back in, but even though Alonso's sectors were much slower, he'd gone out on track before DiResta and thus took P9 to DiResta's P10.
Ricciardo, Grosjean, Perez and Rosberg came out for their single runs and Daniel Ricciardo made everyone sit up with a lap that was good enough for P4, behind him, the likely front rows of the grid set their S1 times: Rosberg 29.4, Webber 29.4, Vettel 29.4, Hamilton 29.4 and Button 29.5.
At the end of the lap Nico Rosberg - who like Webber on his first run had locked up into Turn 10 - could only manage P4, Webber came across the line and took P1, Vettel then put in a 1:32.422 to grab P1 off him and Lewis Hamilton came up short in P2.
Seeing that he was not going to improve Jenson Button, running behind them, opted to come straight back into the pits. So it was Vettel and Hamilton, Webber and Button, Rosberg and Ricciardo on Row 3, with Grosjean and Perez on Row 4. It was tight at the top with 0.5 of a second covering the front six. Tomorrow will all be about the tyres. And, of course, avoiding any mid-race demonstration.
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:32.422
02 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1:32.520
03 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:32.637
04 Jenson Button McLaren 1:32.711
05 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:32.821
06 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:32.912
07 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:33.008
08 Sergio Perez Sauber 1:33.394
09 Fernando Alonso Ferrari
10 Paul di Resta Force India
11 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:33.789
12 Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 1:33.806
13 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:33.807
14 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:33.912
15 Bruno Senna Williams 1:34.017
16 Heikki Kovalainen Caterham 1:36.132
17 Pastor Maldonado Williams
18 Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1:34.865
19 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:35.014
20 Vitaly Petrov Caterham 1:35.823
21 Charles Pic Marussia 1:37.683
22 Pedro de la Rosa HRT 1:37.883
23 Timo Glock Marussia 1:37.905
24 Narain Karthikeyan HRT 1:38.314
Gallery: Saturday's action from Bahrain
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