A tight qualifying battle at Sepang on Saturday afternoon didn't get in the way of McLaren once again rising to the top and locking out the front row by the end of an intriguing and at times highly tactical hour.

Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button by no means dominated all three of the qualifying sessions, but they were ever-present among the front runners and always looked to be quietly and confidently poised to leap into position when it counted. That moment came in the very final seconds of Q3 when Button put in a perfectly timed lap to slip into second place alongside Hamilton, whose early lap of 1:36.219s ultimately proved unbeatable despite his locking up into the final corner. It even allowed him the luxury of being able to abort his final fast lap when it was clear no one could touch it.

Before Button's final run, Michael Schumacher had briefly been set to line up on the front row, after a strong qualifying overall for Mercedes seemed to confirm what team principal Ross Brawn has tacitly admitted this weekend, that the team's much talked about rear wing innovation is more of a qualifying aid than it is a race performance boost.

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As a result, it was Mercedes along with McLaren and Lotus who were mainly jostling at the top of the three qualifying sessions at Sepang. Kimi Raikkonen topped the timesheets in Q2 with a blistering lap, and put in a hugely committed lap in Q3 that flirted with disaster on multiple occasions before finally having to settle for fifth place after tying on time with Red Bull's Mark Webber.

Unfortunately after all that hard work, Raikkonen will drop back to tenth place for the start of the Grand Prix because of the grid penalty he received for an unscheduled gearbox change overnight. But Lotus will surely be happy with the fire that the Iceman displayed in the Malaysian heat, with Raikkonen looking close to being back at his entertaining best after a disappointing display in last weekend's qualification and a number of glitches, gremlins and the odd hospitality fire in the interim. Better still, Romain Grosjean confirmed that this wasn't a one-driver effort when he finished less than two tenths behind his team mate.

Webber's fourth place on the grid means that he will start just ahead of Sebastian Vettel, who inherits fifth from Raikkonen after the Finn's penalty is applied. Neither driver seemed to have enough to seriously put them into contention for the top spots, although Webber himself topped the Q1 times with an explosive late run after flirting with the drop zone. The Australian overall looked the stronger of the two Red Bull drivers, with Vettel curiously muted throughout. The reigning champion's final run on track in Q3 was on hard compound Pirelli tyres, indicating that the team had already given up on getting a fast lap time and that the order of the day was tyre strategy for the start of Sunday's race.

There was disappointment for Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso, however. After featuring strongly in Friday's practice sessions, much was expected of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne but instead they ended up enmeshed in a battle to merely survive beyond Q1. When Vergne locked up his brakes and left his Pirelli tyres badly flat-spotted, his chances of making it through went up in smoke along with the rubber and he ended up consigned to Q1 elimination along with the 'usual suspects' of Caterham, Marussia and HRT.

At one point it looked as though Felipe Massa might be among their number: it was another deeply frustrating and frankly embarrassing early session for the Brazilian as he was forced to dig deep to avoid elimination that would only have increased the calls for Ferrari to sack him. In the end he made it through and did well to haul himself up into 12th position on the grid with his efforts in Q2. That puts him not too far off Fernando Alonso, who made it into Q3 but then was wise enough to know there was nothing to be gained by squandering tyres in a fruitless pursuit of anything higher than ninth position (which should be promoted to eighth after Raikkonen's penalty comes into effect.)

Williams failed to display the breakthrough pace that they did in Australia, with Pastor Maldonado still showing a worrying penchant for momentary lapses with off-roading consequences; instead it was Sauber's Sergio Perez who had a much better day of it than he did last weekend, slipping into Q3 although he then opted to follow Alonso's strategy of not making a serious attempt at a fast lap in favour of saving sets of tyres for the race proper.

Force India continued to be an enigma wrapped in frustration, making it through to Q2 without any dramas but then languishing towards the bottom of the times in the middle session before eventually being eliminated and settling for taking up residence in 14th and 16th place on the grid.

And at the back of the grid, at least there was one bit of good news for HRT: after comprehensively failing to make the requisite 107% threshold in Melbourne and finding the race stewards unwilling to make an exception to allow them to make the grid, this time both Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan beat the requirement and will line up at the start of the Malaysian Grand Prix, making it the first race of 2012 to feature the full compliment of 24 cars and drivers waiting for the lights to go out on Sunday and the action to begin.

Full qualifying times available