Malaysian GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
All McLaren front row again in Malaysia
McLaren struck the first blow in its bid for back-to-back wins at the start of the 2012 season when Lewis Hamilton (1:36.219) and Jenson Button (1:36.368) repeated the performance in Melbourne and locked out the front row of the grid for the Malaysian GP.
Hamilton, chasing a 21st career pole, again produced a superb opening lap at the beginning of Q3 to give the rest a target to chase. He locked up the left front slightly into the final corner, Turn 15, but not enough to spoil the lap.
"It's a good start but it's a long way down to Turn 1, there 's going to be some interesting strategies and the key to the race is going to be looking after your tyres," he said.
That was something team mate Button made a better job of in Melbourne and, given the nature of Sepang and the vicious track temperatures, Malaysia should ask much harder questions than Australia.
Button was 0.15s slower than Hamilton, the exact same margin between the pair in Australia, and it was just enough to keep Michael Schumacher's Mercedes (1:36.319) off the front row, the seven times champion just three hundredths slower than Button.
"The car is moving around quite a lot but I was pretty happy," Button said. "This is a fast, flowing circuit that is tough on cars, tyres and us! It's going to be a long, hot afternoon but I'm looking forward to it. I think we have a good race car as well and we've got a lot of confidence at the moment. But we're not over-confident: Renault and Red Bull seem to have better race than qualifying pace."
The Mercedes pair have been setting the pace in sector one, which is where straightline speed is most important and where the team takes the most from its controversial DRS-activated 'F-duct.'
Nico Rosberg set the quickest lap in Saturday morning's final free practice but when it mattered it was only Schumacher who held the challenge together. Rosberg, who locked up going into Turn 1, could only qualify eighth fastest (1:36.664).
Schumacher and Mercedes are hoping that by slanting their set-up options more towards the race, they will not experience the tyre degradation that afflicted Rosberg after just eight laps in Melbourne.
One man hoping they are right is Mark Webber (1:36.461), who lines up directly behind Schumacher - never an easy man to pass - in the first of the Red Bulls.
Schumacher, three times a winner in Malaysia, seemed highly satisfied.
"It's quite an achievement to be third, particularly knowing we've chosen a car that should also be quick in the race," he said. "If you think who's behind us, who would have thought that last year? And we are reasonably close, not miles away, so it's up to us to have a good development programme."
Kimi Raikkonen (1:36.461) recorded an identical time to Webber, right down to the last thousandth of a second but suffers a five-place demotion on the grid due to a gearbox change on Friday. The Finn's long run pace looked impressive in FP2, however, and his target of a podium finish may not be out of the question given that he will still start in the top 10.
Sebastian Vettel (1:36.634) has not seemed able to get the best out of Pirelli's option tyre all weekend and, after doing his first run on the softer tyre, was alone among the Q3 runners in switching to the prime for his second run. He had to beat his option tyre time in order to be able to start on the prime, which he did, and so has some potentially interesting strategic flexibility in the race.
Button, however, did not seem particularly convinced that it affords the world champion any great advantage.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I think the tyres are pretty close in terms of lap time and he still has to run the option tyre, so who's to say it's slower or the degradation is worse?"
Romain Grosjean (1:36.664) starts seventh for Renault, just two hundredths shy of Vettel and a hundredth ahead of Rosberg. Then comes a significant gap to Fernando Alonso's Ferrari (1:37.556) and Sergio Perez's Sauber (1:37.698).
Williams again looked strong until Pastor Maldonado compromised his Q3 chances with an off in Q2 but has freedom of tyre choice at the start, 11th, while Bruno Senna lines up two slots further back, the pair sandwiching Felipe Massa's Ferrari.
We will have a full grid this time with both HRT drivers, Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan, inside the 107% Q1 cut-off.