Sebastian Vettel has well-and-truly thrown down the gauntlet to his Red Bull Racing team-mate and F1 2010 World Championship leader Mark Webber, by sealing his ninth pole position of the season ahead of Sunday's inaugural Korean Grand Prix – and in so doing, signalling that it is game on for the title.
Whilst Lotus Racing ace Heikki Kovalainen was the first man out on-track in Q1, as the times swiftly began to tumble around the much-maligned Korea International Circuit, more anticipated names came to the fore, with under-pressure Williams rookie Nico Hülkenberg leaping up to the top of the order and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi right behind him in second.
The young Japanese star – arguably true to form – would go on to endure a number of wild moments, but as the clock ticked down it was experienced team-mate Nick Heidfeld who found himself in danger, only to haul himself to safety late on and plunge Force India's Vitantonio Liuzzi into the dreaded drop zone, with the Italian having lost time with a tyre deflation in FP3.
Back up at the front, meanwhile, the big-hitters were coming out to play, with title protagonists Fernando Alonso – who seems to have been a magnet for traffic thus far this weekend – Vettel and Lewis Hamilton snatching away the limelight.
Fellow championship contender and defending F1 World Champion Jenson Button left it late before putting in an appearance, and subsequently looked to be struggling with a McLaren-Mercedes MP4-25 that was anything but stable at the rear – never making it into the single figures and languishing as far down as 14th at one stage before winding up tenth.
Another driver to flirt with danger was Renault star Robert Kubica, who having stolen McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari's thunder in morning practice by storming to the top of the timesheets, only ventured out with around six minutes of Q1 remaining. After getting caught up behind Hispania Racing rookie Bruno Senna – himself endeavouring to recover from a distinct lack of track time on Friday with suspension woes – the Pole came perilously close to falling into the drop zone in the closing seconds as his audacious strategy threatened to backfire on him, before hauling himself to safety in sixth.
Indeed, there was a flurry of activity as the chequered flag fell, with Liuzzi briefly edging his own Force India team-mate Adrian Sutil out-of-the-reckoning, before the German repaid the favour and then Heidfeld made sure that the man from Locorotondo failed to make it beyond Q1 for the fifth time this year, leaving the safety of his seat at FIF1 in 2011 increasingly in jeopardy.
Joining Liuzzi in exiting the fray at the earliest opportunity were the usual suspects of new team 'pole-sitter' Jarno Trulli, Timo Glock – who endured a dusty spin in Turn 13 along the way – Kovalainen, Lucas Di Grassi in the second Virgin car and HRT pairing Sakon Yamamoto and the luckless Senna. The top ten were ultimately constituted by9 Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Felipe Massa, Kubica, Mercedes Grand Prix duo Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, Hülkenberg and the off-form Button.
Although Schumacher and Massa made the early running in Q2, it was Hamilton on the harder-compound tyres who really made people sit up and take notice with his pace, before the two Red Bulls came to the fore again by vaulting to one-two. The Ferraris looked pretty handy, too, with Alonso topping the timing screens after switching over to the softer rubber, and Massa subsequently demoting his team-mate to claim P1 for himself.