Formula 1 world championship leader Jenson Button maintained his perfect pole position record of 2009 after storming to a second successive top spot in qualifying ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang – but Jarno Trulli ran him close.
A brief shower half an hour before the session kicked off gave all drivers and teams a bit of a scare, but brief was all it was, whilst the lap times in practice had made for fascinating reading – with the top 13 covered by a scant eight tenths of a second.
Nico Rosberg had once more put Williams on top in FP2 and FP3; the Brawns were showing some weaknesses, with occasional smoky moments and a five-place grid penalty for Rubens Barrichello following a gearbox change; former double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso was suffering from an ear infection and admitting to not being 100 per cent fit; McLaren-Mercedes seemed to have taken a step forward with a new floor on its troubled MP4-24; and Red Bull Racing star Sebastian Vettel was facing a ten-place drop from his qualifying position after having been deemed the guilty party in his late-race collision with BMW-Sauber rival Robert Kubica in Melbourne last weekend. And as for Ferrari's Felipe Massa, well, he had taken pole in Malaysia for the past two years in succession – and he was understandably extremely keen to make it a hat-trick.
The cars streamed out on-track as soon as the 20-minute Q1 got underway, with fears remaining that the rain may return as thunderstorms menaced the Sepang air. Only Heikki Kovalainen, Alonso – who had enjoyed minimal running over the weekend so far and had endured a number of spins during practice – and Red Bull Racing duo Mark Webber and Vettel were yet to take to the circuit.
Kimi Raikkonen threw away his first lap on soft rubber by running wide, as Rosberg – on Bridgestone's harder tyres – led team-mate Kazuki Nakajima in a Williams one-two again, before impressive Scuderia Toro Rosso rookie Sébastien Buemi spoiled their party by splitting the pair. Force India's Adrian Sutil then surprisingly leapt to the top of the order, until the young German's time was blown out of the water by a much better second attempt from Raikkonen.
Melbourne winner Button, under-fire McLaren star Lewis Hamilton, Massa and Toyota ace Trulli also rapidly showed up at the sharp end of proceedings as the times began to tumble. Webber's opening effort was good enough only for 14th as Alonso continued to play it cool in his pit garage, whilst less than halfway into the session and it was already a Brawn GP one-two.
A faster second lap from Webber lifted the Aussie up to ninth – putting practice pace-setter Rosberg on the bubble – as Alonso shot off-piste at turn nine and onto the grass, with the two Renaults down in 19th and 20th and less than eight minutes remaining on the clock. Nick Heidfeld was also in trouble as Alonso hauled himself into the top ten, as Nakajima vaulted up into second to split the Brawns, with Barrichello, Raikkonen, Kovalainen and Massa completing the leading half dozen.
Nelsinho Piquet – under pressure to drag himself to safety – set the fastest time in each of the first two sectors en route
to an impressive seventh, pushing the second Toro Rosso of Sébastien Bourdais into danger along with Rosberg, Heidfeld and the Force India duo of Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella. Rosberg's next effort, though, popped the German up into second, with Timo Glock moving into fourth – before Trulli astonished the paddock with a lap time three tenths of a second quicker than anyone
else to steal P1.
That flurry of changes left both BMWs in the bottom five and in very serious danger with barely two minutes remaining, with the Red Bulls in eleventh and 14th also looking precarious. Vettel slotted into third, but Webber demoted his team-mate a spot as he stormed into second just moments later, with Alonso and Hamilton now approaching the bubble.