Jenson Button made it two pole positions in a row as he beat Jarno Trulli by less than a tenth of a second in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
But Felipe Massa will start from 16th after he and Ferrari made a disastrous mistake early in the session.
Will the prospect of rain the drivers wasted no time getting on the track – with many of the top teams getting straight down to business using the soft tyres.
Kimi Raikkonen went fastest to begin with, despite spoiling his first lap by running off the track at turn seven. But Jenson Button nicked the top time off his by 0.3s with his first lap on the soft tyres.
The Williams went out on the hard tyres to begin with and visibly lacked pace. But once he put the soft tyres on first Kazuki Nakajima moved up to second and then Timo Glock did likewise.
Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, was struggling. He’d admitted before the session that his ear infection meant he was not on top form – and proved it by running off the track at turn nine.
Nelson Piquet Jnr had targeted this session as the one where he would finally put one over Alonso. But despite several attempts his ailing team mate still prevailed, and Piquet failed to make the second part of qualifying once again.
But that was nothing compared to the drama that was about to unfold. Having set competitive times on soft tyres Ferrari did not send their drivers out for a final run. But as more rubber went down and track conditions improved Massa was suddenly caught out and slipped to 16th – with no time left to set another lap.
Sensationally, he was out, and his decision not to go out for a second attempt was all the more baffling as he’d made a mistake on his first effort.
Sebastien Buemi also failed to make Q2. His final lap ended in a gravel trap, the Swiss driver cursing his mistake as the intermediate sectors had indicated he was set to make it into Q2.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
16. Felipe Massa 1’35.642
17. Nelson Piquet Jnr 1’35.708
18. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’35.908
19. Adrian Sutil 1’35.951
20. Sebastien Buemi 1’36.107
Jarno Trulli was quickest to begin with in Q2, but Sebastian Vettel and Button matched his 1’34.2 to within a tenth of a second. But Button was able to do the time on the hard tyres, suggesting the Brawn had some performance on hand.
Meanwhile the battle around the drop zone was fierce – Alonso and Hamilton in nin th and tenth were separated by 0.003s at first, with Kovalainen less than 0.02s behind.
Everyone bar Vettel went out for a second lap. Kovalainen failed to improve his time, consigning him to the bottom five, and the same fate befell Hamilton: both the McLarens on 1’34.9s.
Meanwhile Button switched to the soft tyres and his last lap was a cracker – 1’33.784, 0.4s faster than Raikkonen’s best from 2008.
But a great last lap from Alonso scraped him into the top ten by a narrow margin, dumping Nick Heidfeld out of the running.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
11. Nick Heidfeld 1’34.769
12. Kazuki Nakajima 1’34.788
13. Lewis Hamilton 1’34.905
14. Heikki Kovalainen 1’34.924
15. Sebastien Bourdais 1’35.431
Button carried over his advantage into Q3 – to begin with. But Trulli did two laps with his first set of soft tyres and with the second he pipped Button’s mark by 0.004s.
Raikkonen was ninth to begin with but improved to fourth on his final lap. But it appeared as though the Ferrari driver was avoiding using his KERS, perhaps because of the trouble he experienced in qualifying.
Barrichello took over the top of the time sheets despite a small mistake on his lap. But Button had even more time in hand and posted a 1’35.181 to take his second consecutive pole position.
Trulli narrowly failed to beat Button, falling short by less than one tenth of a second.
Vettel and Barrichello were third and fourth but will drop down the order due to their penalties, elevating Timo Glock to third.
Top ten drivers in Q3
1. Jenson Button 1′35.181
2. Jarno Trulli 1′35.273
3. Sebastian Vettel 1′35.518
4. Rubens Barrichello 1′35.651
5. Timo Glock 1′35.690
6. Nico Rosberg 1′35.750
7. Mark Webber 1′35.797
8. Robert Kubica 1′36.106
9. Kimi Raikkonen 1′36.170
10. Fernando Alonso 1′37.659
See the final grid after penalties have been applied: Malaysian Grand Prix grid
The drivers’ starting fuel weights have been published: Malaysian GP fuel weights and strategies