For a while during qualifying for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix, it looked as though McLaren-Mercedes might just pull off the unthinkable by crowning its spectacular early-season resurgence from a torrid winter's testing by pipping Red Bull Racing to pole position – but F1 2011 World Championship leader Sebastian Vettel had other ideas.
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button's form during practice in Kuala Lumpur had hinted at an upset in the offing, and one was very nearly produced – but whilst it will be the same man at the front of the grid when the starting lights go out at Sepang on Sunday, with barely three tenths of a second blanketing the Red Bull and McLaren quartet this time, unlike in Australia two weeks ago, F1 fans could just be set for a thriller.
The opening salvo in Q3 saw Hamilton throw down the gauntlet with an extraordinary effort almost four tenths up on McLaren team-mate Button, with the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber splitting the pair and every other driver restricting themselves to just a single lap, doubtless in the knowledge that barring a miracle, they would not be able to challenge for the front two rows of the grid.
It all then came down to the second lap, with Webber, Hamilton and Vettel each setting personal bests. Webber crossed the line first, but the Australian had lost time in the final two sectors, whilst Hamilton went and chipped a further two hundredths of a second off his own benchmark – but that was not enough to stave off the charging Vettel, who went a tenth quicker again to steal pole away from right under the Briton's nose.
With Button staying fourth in the top teams' 'second tier' duel, Fernando Alonso wound up a distant fifth as Ferrari remains all-at-sea with its off-the-pace F150° Italia, almost a second away from the pole time and just ahead of Nick Heidfeld, who banished his Melbourne qualifying nightmare on his Lotus Renault GP debut with an excellent sixth place second time out. Their respective team-mates Felipe Mass and Vitaly Petrov will sit alongside each other on row four, with Nico Rosberg and Kamui Kobayashi rounding out the top ten.
Having flirted with missing the cut in Q1, Webber was straight out onto the track in Q2 and straight onto the soft tyres to-boot, but whilst both he and team-mate Vettel were fast, Button was a damn site faster, blitzing the two Red Bulls and lapping significantly quicker than he had done at any stage of the weekend to-date to signal that it was very much game on in Kuala Lumpur.
As Ferrari and Mercedes struggled, Renault and Force India F1 chanced it by leaving it late before taking to the track – with Adrian Sutil, indeed, not taking to the track at all. On the softer rubber, Vitaly Petrov and Nick Heidfeld went for just a single run – meaning the pressure was on – but both delivered, popping into fourth and fifth places respectively, albeit more than a second adrift of the leading pace.
With Hamilton surprisingly in the drop zone with only two minutes to go, the 2008 world champion dug deep to vault into P2 right behind his team-mate – but further down the order, there were cheers and tears, as Kobayashi earned himself a Q3 shot with an impressive late effort and Rosberg knocked his own team-mate Michael Schumacher out of the top ten.
That means, that for the second time in as many races in F1 2011, the most successful driver in the sport's history will take the start from only eleventh place, followed on this occasion by Scuderia Toro Rosso duo Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari, Force India rookie Paul di Resta – who, with no great prior experience of the Sepang International Circuit, seems to be suffering from being curiously forced to sit out FP1 on Friday morning in favour of FIF1 reserve driver Nico Hülkenberg – Williams veteran Rubens Barrichello, Sauber new boy Sergio Pérez and Sutil.