Sebastian Vettel qualifies on pole in Malaysia
SEBASTIAN Vettel mastered the tricky conditions to make it back-to-back pole positions to start the new Formula One season.
A short burst of rain struck the Sepang International Circuit five minutes from the end of the second period of qualifying ahead of tomorrow's Malaysian Grand Prix.
It made for an all-guns-blazing top shoot-out on the intermediate wet tyres, with reigning triple world champion Vettel again emerging top dog to claim the 38th pole of his F1 career.
The surprise is who will start alongside him on the front row as Ferrari's Felipe Massa managed to edge team-mate Fernando Alonso at the death.
It will be the first time in three years Massa has started from such a position on the grid, going back to the opening Bahrain Grand Prix of the 2010 season.
Behind the leading trio will be Lewis Hamilton, who admitted coming into the weekend his lack of confidence in his Mercedes in the wet, but who temporarily was on pole before falling down the order.
Red Bull's Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg in his Mercedes occupy the third row of the grid, followed by Australian Grand Prix winner from last weekend in Kimi Raikkonen who lines up seventh on the grid.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had expressed his hope ahead of qualifying for some rain to spice things up and give his drivers a chance.
But Jenson Button could only manage eighth and Sergio Perez 10th, with Force India's Adrian Sutil separating the McLaren duo.
The rain certainly played its part in Q2 also, preventing Lotus' Romain Grosjean and Force India's Paul Di Resta from getting in a second timed run, and with it a crack at the top 10.
The Frenchman will start 11th ahead of Sauber duo Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez who line up 12th and 14th either side of a strong 13th place for Daniel Ricciardo in his Toro Rosso.
As for Di Resta, he had two attempts at a second hot lap, but ran wide on his first run as rain was starting to fall over one area before spinning through 270 degrees at the same corner on his second effort.
The Scot will now start 15th alongside Williams' Pastor Maldonado.
Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and Valtteri Bottas in the other Williams were the drivers this week to join the Marussias and Caterhams in the bottom six.
Vergne will line up 17th and Bottas 18th, but the major surprise was Jules Bianchi in the Marussia finishing just half a second away from a place in Q2.
Marussia have made considerable strides this season, and with Ferrari academy driver and former Force India reserve Bianchi behind the wheel, the Frenchman is proving a revelation.
Bianchi will line up 19th, finishing just under a second clear of Caterham's Charles Pic, with Marussia team-mate Max Chilton 1.2secs down and starting 21st.
At least British rookie Chilton, who had been slowest in each of the three practice sessions, again avoided last place on the grid as that honour belongs to Caterham's Giedo van der Garde.
Vettel finished nine tenths of a second clear of Massa after making the switch to a set of fresh intermediate tyres towards the end of Q3, which gave him the edge.
"It was an interesting qualifying session," said Red Bull star Vettel.
"In Q2 we were quite on the edge, so probably the rain helped a bit because I would have had to have gone out again.
"Then in Q3, with the circuit drying, it was better to change tyres. We confirmed that early, did the right thing.
"I'm a bit surprised by the gap because it was quite tricky out there with some parts of the track wet and some dry.
"For the race, it will all be about managing the tyres."
Massa, who also enjoyed a second set of fresh inters, said: "I'm not sure if we would have been second and third in the dry, so it was a good qualifying from us.
"We took the right decision to change the tyres and I managed to put a good lap in."
Alonso, on the occasion of his 200th grands prix, is hopeful of building on his runner-up position in Melbourne last Sunday.
"We're not sure of the performance, the car's race pace, we're a little inconsistent, sometimes good, sometimes not," he said.
"In Melbourne the race pace was okay, so we've no reason not to be optimistic for tomorrow."