Jarno Trulli leads the first ever one-two for Toyota with Timo Glock in second place.
Chinese Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel edged Jenson Button for third by 0.03s.
But Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber will start on the last row of the grid after being held up by Adrian Sutil.
Giancarlo Fisichella was first to set a time, his Force India running a new front wing and a revised diffuser. But his first lap on super-soft tyres, a 1’35.931, was quickly beaten as many more cars rushed out onto the track.
Several of the fastest cars went out on the medium rubber including Sebastian Vettel, who abandoned his Shanghai tactics of waiting until the last minute, and set the second quickest time behind Jarno Trulli.
Kimi Raikkonen leapt to the top of the times with a 1’33.648 on super-soft tyres – then improved to a 1’33.524 on his second run. But in the meantime team mate Felipe Massa had deposed him with a 1’33.512.
Next Lewis Hamilton, also on the super-soft tyres, moved the benchmark further with a 1’33.290.
Heading into the final stages of the session Nelson Piquet Jnr leapt out of the bottom five to take fourth, leaving Bourdais, Webber, Kovalainen, Glock and Fisichella in the drop zone – but the five were separated by just a few tenths.
Kovalainen improved to second behind his team mate. Both Toyotas began pumping in fastest sector times – Glock moving up to first with a 1’33.165, then Trulli setting a 1’32.779.
In Malaysia it was Massa, in China it was Kubica – and in Bahrain Mark Webber provided the surprise of the session by being eliminated in Q1. He came across Sutil at the end of a flying lap, and the Force India driver took rather too long moving out of the way.
Sutil didn’t make it through to the final part of qualifying either, but a penalty could be waiting for him after the session.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
16. Adrian Sutil 1’33.722
17. Sebastien Buemi 1’33.753
18. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’33.910
19. Mark Webber 1’34.038
20. Sebastien Bourdais 1’34.159
Sebastian Vettel was quickest after the first round of laps – over 0.3s ahead of Raikkonen. Alonso found more pace from the R29 (he’d also complained of traffic in Q1), going third, 1.1s faster than team mate Piquet.
Hamilton’s first attempt wasn’t good enough for the top ten, leaving him in the drop zone along with both BMWs, Piquet and Massa.
Kovalainen made a tiny improvement of 0.03s on his final effort – putting him eighth – but Hamilton needed much more. He found 0.4s over his team mate with a 1’32.877, which proved the difference between Hamilton staying in and Kovalainen dropping out.
Vettel was comfortably quickest at the end of the session but several drivers who’d gone out to do final laps aborted them after it became clear many drivers in the chasing pack weren’t improving. Along with Kovalainen that included Nakajima, Piquet (who went off on his final effort) and the BMWs.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
11. Heikki Kovalainen 1’33.242
12. Kazuki Nakajima 1’33.348
13. Robert Kubica 1’33.487
14. Nick Heidfeld 1’33.562
15. Nelson Piquet Jnr 1’33.941
Brawn, Ferrari and Toyota each got both their drivers into Q3, while Hamilton, Alonso, Rosberg and Vettel were the sole representatives of their teams.
The Toyotas set the fastest times to begin with, Vettel half a second slower, suggesting he had a decent level of fuel on board. He was fourth between the two Brawns, Button in third.
Button was one of the first drivers to start his final lap – he went quickest with a 1’34.044. Vettel edged that by 0.03s but the Toyotas were vastly quicker – Jarno Trulli claiming pole position with a 0.6s advantage over Vettel in third, and Timo Glock between the pair of them.
Toyota’s John Howett said he didn’t think the cars were “excessively” light, indicating they are a little bit light, but we’ll find out the full fuel weights in a few hours.
Top ten drivers in Q3
1. Jarno Trulli 1′33.431
2. Timo Glock 1′33.712
3. Sebastian Vettel 1′34.015
4. Jenson Button 1′34.044
5. Lewis Hamilton 1′34.196
6. Rubens Barrichello 1′34.239
7. Fernando Alonso 1′34.578
8. Felipe Massa 1′34.818
9. Nico Rosberg 1′35.134
10. Kimi Raikkonen 1′35.380