Sebastian Vettel's relationship with his new on-track companion Luscious Liz is very much in the honeymoon stages, it would seem, as the young German saw off a dual threat from Ferrari to steal the first pole position of F1 2010 for Red Bull Racing in qualifying for this weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir.
Whilst the scarlet machines of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa looking to be the cars to beat heading into the final phase of the session, Vettel vaulted himself superbly into the reckoning with a single flying lap almost a full second clear of anybody else, after Red Bull had played it the coolest of all under the baking heat of the desert sun by venturing out for just one run. The others would respond and reduce that gap – but not by enough.
Massa cut the deficit to just over a tenth of a second at the close, as the Brazilian – who has a strong record around the Bahrain International Circuit, with back-to-back victories in 2007 and 2008 – outpointed new team-mate Alonso first time out, firmly putting to bed any theories that he might no longer be the same driver anymore following his life-threatening Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying accident last summer.
After showing his rivals the way throughout Q3 and for much of qualifying, double F1 World Champion Alonso wound up a slightly disappointed third, with Lewis Hamilton an excellent fourth for McLaren-Mercedes, having lost crucial set-up and qualifying simulation time to a brake cooling duct failure towards the end of FP3, leaving the 2008 title-winner on the back foot and at times clearly wrestling his car raggedly around the track.
Nico Rosberg echoed Massa in outpacing his high-profile team-mate – returning seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher in this case – as Mercedes Grand Prix took fifth and seventh spots, with the elder German taking part in his first F1 'shoot-out' session. The pair were split by the second RBR of Mark Webber, who made a mistake in the mid-sector of his fastest lap, with Jenson Button struggling to eighth and 2008 pole-sitter Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil completing row five for respectively Renault and Force India.
Q2, it had been surmised, would be the crunch moment when – spared the ignominy of dropping out in Q1 following the advent of the new teams – any off-colour front-runners would need to be on their guard lest they come a cropper and miss out. One man looking in danger of becoming a high-profile Q2 scalp was Button as he lingered perilously on the cusp, whilst Schumacher – consistently around four tenths of a second shy of on-form Mercedes team-mate Rosberg and publicly acknowledging the need to 'raise his game' – was only just safe as the clock ticked down.
Button faced a nail-biting final few minutes as a nip-and-tuck last lap only just hauled him into the top ten by less than two tenths of a second, but those less fortunate were Williams duo Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hülkenberg sandwiching the second Force India of Vitantonio Liuzzi from eleventh to 13th, Sauber duo Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi similarly sandwiching Sébastien Buemi from 14th to 16th, and Renault rookie Vitaly Petrov a disappointing 17th having shown well earlier on in the session.
The top ten, though – comprised of Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Rosberg, Hamilton, Kubica, Sutil, Schumacher and Button – gave some hint as to what could be expected in the final, vital Q3 shoot-out...
In Q1, the anticipated fall guys – Timo Glock, last year's pole-sitter Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen, Lucas Di Grassi, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok for new teams Virgin, Lotus and Hispania (HRT) – were accompanied, rather more surprisingly, by Scuderia Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari in failing to make it beyond the opening session, after the Spaniard spoiled his last lap with a sideways moment.