Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello proved that Brawn GP's winter testing form had been anything but a flash in the pan by sensationally locking out the front row of the starting grid for this weekend's 2009 curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne - as reigning Formula 1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton languished all the way down in 15th place...

With grip - or rather a chronic lack of it - the major issue for most drivers heading into qualifying, there was still very much a feeling that this could be anyone's pole position. Nobody in the paddock was able to truly say who would be up there and who wouldn't, but Williams had every reason to be confident, with Nico Rosberg having impressively and surprisingly paced all three practice sessions for the multiple former world champions.

Brawn GP had been consistently amongst the front-runners too, but Ferrari were all-at-sea - with Felipe Massa enduring a number of 'moments' on-track and team-mate team-mate Kimi Raikkonen managing only five laps on Saturday morning after encountering a hydraulics problem on his F60. BMW-Sauber, also, were struggling, with Robert Kubica in particular complaining of tyre woes as the laps wore on. And as for McLaren-Mercedes - well, least said soonest mended might be the kindest way to sum up the situation at Woking in the early stages of 2009...

Giancarlo Fisichella was the first man to take to the track in Q1 in the promising Force India VJM02, followed by Scuderia Toro Rosso new boy S?bastien Buemi and pace-setter Rosberg. The rest of the pack soon followed suit to chase the Italian's initial marker, with Rosberg dipping a second below the early benchmark, quicker than the Ferraris, Heikki Kovalainen in the McLaren and Adrian Sutil, who popped up into second place after benefiting from a handy tow along the pit straight.

A second flying - albeit somewhat scrappy - effort from Rosberg removed another eight tenths off the time to beat, before team-mate Kazuki Nakajima re-affirmed Williams' stellar form by leaping to the top of the timesheets. The Ferraris were in close attendance behind, whilst Hamilton was yet to take to the circuit with twelve minutes to go.

Raikkonen then stole the top spot away from Williams, with Barrichello slotting into fourth, as Hamilton finally headed out of the pit-lane on Bridgestone's softer-spec rubber. Home hero Mark Webber slotted into an excellent third, but Fernando Alonso was the man to raise the bar again, belying Renault's mediocre practice pace and poor handling in FP3 to lay down a marker of his own.

Barrichello stole the Spaniard's thunder just moments later, before Hamilton pulled a sublime lap out of the bag to shoot immediately up into second place on his opening run as the order continued to chop and change. Button subsequently displaced his countryman to make it a Brawn one-two, as the BMWs continued to play a waiting game in the pits - and right down at the bottom of the timing screens.

Nick Heidfeld's first shot secured the experienced German eleventh place, but there was no such joy for Nelsinho Piquet, who was languishing down in 19th in the second Renault, with behind him - incredibly - 2008 championship runner-up Massa. Fisichella, Sutil and the Toyota of Jarno Trulli were also in the 'drop' zone with just under five minutes remaining on the clock.

Massa, however, would take more than a second off his previous best effort on his following run to leapfrog 18 places up the order into second, as Raikkonen improved ten spots from 14th to fourth - the message being that Ferrari's pace was clearly there. That pushed Kovalainen into danger with less than two minutes remaining, as Webber sensationally stormed to the top of the order by four tenths of a second, sending the partisan home crowd into rapture.

Sutil narrowly pulled himself up to safety in 15th as Trulli left it late to save his bacon with seventh, with Kovalainen slotting in just behind in eighth. Ironically, that left team-mate Hamilton right on the bubble, in company with former sparring partner Alonso, and whilst the latter was able to haul himself into the top ten before the chequered flag, the sport's youngest-ever title-winner only just made the cut.

That left the Toro Rossos of Buemi and a distraught S?bastien Bourdais, the Force India duo of Sutil and Fisichella and Piquet's Renault out for the count, with the breathless Q1 top ten composed of Barrichello, Button - the two Brawn GP machines having grabbed the leading positions right at the last - Webber, Timo Glock, Heidfeld, Massa, Rosberg, Raikkonen, Kubica and Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel.

Raikkonen was out first in Q2, swiftly followed by team-mate Massa and the Toyota pairing of Trulli and Glock, suggesting none of the four were altogether happy with their Q1 performances. The latter was the quickest of the four, before Button nicked the position away from the young German six minutes into the session.

Hamilton, meanwhile, was out, after complaining of problems at the rear of his MP4-24 at the end of Q1 that caused him to 'lose all drive' and left him unable to continue. The reigning F1 World Champion would be beginning the 2009 Australian Grand Prix from a lowly 15th place on the grid.

Vettel was the next man to show his true colours by moving to the top of the order, with compatriot Rosberg slotting in just behind in second but the BMWs seeming once again to be struggling. Whilst Kubica was able to get his F1.09 up to third, the sister car of Heidfeld was only eleventh, in the drop zone in company with Kovalainen, Trulli and Nakajima.

Alonso was on the bubble as Kovalainen proved unable to force his way up into the all-important top ten, but at the contrasting sharp end of proceedings the two Brawns were once more exchanging lap times for the honour of going quickest, with Barrichello again getting the nod to put a broad smile on the face of new team sponsor Richard Branson.

Vettel and Rosberg were also safely into Q3 in third and fourth respectively, with Kubica fifth, but there was misery for Kovalainen and Heidfeld as well as - perhaps rather more surprisingly - Alonso and Nakajima, as Williams' early bubble looked to be nearing bursting point. Webber, Trulli - who again saved himself with a very late effort - Glock and the Ferraris of Massa and Raikkonen were the final five drivers through into the top ten shoot-out. Interestingly, too, five of the seven cars running KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) technology in qualifying Down Under were out.

As tensions mounted, the remaining drivers prepared to do battle in Q3, with the Brawns in particular looking strong after leading the way in both earlier sessions - and understood to have used up only one set of the softer tyres in doing so. Button led Barrichello early on, with Rosberg third but more than a second in arrears as Williams' extraordinary practice performance increasingly unravelled.

Trulli went fourth on his first effort, just in front of the Ferrari duo - but all eyes were on just what the Red Bull pairing of Webber and Vettel could do. Third and fourth was the answer, in front of Kubica, with the two scarlet machines down in ninth and tenth after the opening runs had been completed - albeit on the harder tyres.

With just over three minutes left to run Massa reported a puncture - though his team admitted there was nothing visible - as all drivers came in for a quick splash n' dash and tyre change, and headed out for the pole position showdown. Barrichello was the first man to show his hand, but his second split time was a fraction down on Button. The final effort, though, was good enough - by a mere nine hundredths of a second - but Button was on a flyer too, and snatched the top spot back again just moments later.

That preceded a late flurry that saw places changing by the second, with the final order composed of Button, Barrichello, Vettel, Kubica, Rosberg, Glock, Massa, Trulli, Raikkonen and Webber

So there we have the answer - Brawn GP's scintillating winter testing pace was very, very real. Rising Lazarus-like from the dead, the ex-Honda concern has turned the F1 formbook absolutely on its head Down Under. Roll on race day!

To see the qualifying times in full, click here

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