It sets up a fascinating race tomorrow as Lewis Hamilton joins him on the front row to rejoin their battle in the Malaysian Grand Prix last weekend.
Team mates Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso start directly behind them with the BMWs locking out the third row of the grid and Mark Webber an excellent eighth for Red Bull.
The final practice session before qualifying raised the prospects of an exciting session with Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen separated at the top of the table by just 0.006s.
Behind them both BMWs were in close company and in fifth was Anthony Davidson, 0.357s slower than Hamilton. With ninth (Giancarlo Fisichella) to seventeenth (Takuma Sato) covered by less than half a second, progressing through each of the sessions would be a challenge for the mid-fielders.
With the midfield so tightly packed the session began with a flurry of action, as all bar the top four teams wanted to get a banker lap in for their drivers.
Davidson was the first driver to set a truly competitive lap under the 1m 34s, with a 1m 33.403s.
Lewis Hamilton was next to push the benchmark, setting a 1m 32.580s despite running the harder compound tyres and running wide at the first corner.
Key to that lap was a very quick middle sector of 39.6s which team mate Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen could not beat, although Massa’s 1m 32.443 was the fastest lap thus far.
With three minutes remaining most drivers came back for a second run right up to Davidson, then seventh. But one driver out of the running was David Coulthard, who suffered gearbox problems on his final run and pulled in.
The two Renault drivers scraped through in the dying seconds and so did both Hondas – but Jenson Button only survived when Sato’s last time fell 0.017s short of knocking him out.
17. Takuma Sato 1’33.984s
18. Vitantonio Liuzzi 1’34.024s
19. Scott Speed 1’34.333s
20. Adrian Sutil 1’35.280s
21. David Coulthard 1’35.341s
22. Christijan Albers 1’35.533s
Nick Heidfeld in the second session did the job Davidson had in the first of setting a benchmark, at 1m 32.233s. But Hamilton, now on soft tyres, was first into the 31s – 1m 31.732s.
The message was clear – anyone wanting to get into the top ten would need at least a 1m 32. This was particularly bad news for the Hondas – both on 34s.
Alonso’s 32.214s left him behind Heidfeld but Massa signalled his intentions again, fastest of all in the first two sectors and quickest on 1m 31.359s. Raikkonen went third, fractionally slower than Hamilton.
Mark Webber, seventh, and Alexander Wurz, fourteenth, separated by nine tenths of a second, framed the battle for survival into the final session. The Ferraris, McLarens and BMWs looked safe – and the Hondas looked hopeless.
Davidson failed to make it through to the final session for Super Aguri but still beat Ralf Schumacher and the Hondas. Heikki Kovalainen once again failed to get through, although team mate Fisichella did, just 0.026s ahead of Wurz.
Mark Webber once again used his qualifying prowess to get the Red Bull into the final session, just as he had in Melbourne.
11. Alexander Wurz 1’32.915s
12. Heikki Kovalainen 1’32.935s
13. Anthony Davidson 1’33.082s
14. Ralf Schumacher 1’33.294s
15. Rubens Barrichello 1’33.624s
16. Jenson Button 1’33.731s
Unusually, neither Alonso nor Fisichella queued up at the end of the pit lane to commence the ‘fuel burn’ phase of qualifying immediately, but both were dispatched from their boxes as the green light came on.
His team mate Hamilton’s car seemed to smoking very gently at speed on the straights but the Briton continued lapping.
All drivers set themselves up for two cracks at a fastest time, first among them Heidfeld who, surprisingly, used the less-favoured harder tyres. He posted a 1m 34.340s – slower than Hamilton had done in the ‘fuel burn’ – and returned to the pits for soft tyres.
Massa and Hamilton traded fastest sectors on their way to the first lap – Massa posted a 1m 33.090s and Hamilton fell short by 0.028s. Raikkonen managed a 1m 33.528s with Alonso next on 1m 33.655s.
Behind them were the BMWs then Nico Rosberg ahead of Webber, Fisichella and Jarno Trulli, with one lap each left for everyone.
Massa set every sector purple on route to a 1m 32.652s while Hamilton managed 1m 32.935s to take second – his first ever start from the front row.
Raikkonen and Alonso, third and fourth, were both in the low 33s and looked like they were fuelled heavier.
Heidfeld outqualified Kubica and Fisichella got up to seventh ahead of a very impressive Webber, Trulli’s Toyota and Rosberg’s Williams.
1. Felipe Massa 1’32.652s
2. Lewis Hamilton 1’32.935s
3. Kimi Raikkonen 1’33.131s
4. Fernando Alonso 1’33.192s
5. Nick Heidfeld 1’33.404s
6. Robert Kubica 1’33.710s
7. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’34.056s
8. Mark Webber 1’34.106s
9. Jarno Trulli 1’34.154s
10. Nico Rosberg 1’34.399s