"It feels great", said Sebastian Vettel when asked how it felt to be back on pole position for the first time in 2012. "It's very good to put the car on pole."

Vettel's top time caught many by surprise, especially coming hard on the heels of an underwhelming performance last weekend in the far cooler conditions in China. But a little desert heat and sand seemed to work wonders for the two-time world champion at Bahrain International Circuit, and put him back where we got all too familiar seeing him in 2011.

It proved to be an unusual qualifying session all round, with many drivers ending up outside of their expected grid positions as a result of the changing conditions on the track, and the dramatically different performances of the two Pirelli tyre compounds on offer.

McLaren saw the upsets coming midway through Q1, when they warned Jenson Button that despite his time being almost two seconds away from the 'drop zone' at that point of the session, things could prove much tighter especially once the track started to clean up some of the dust and dirty that had been deposited overnight and through the morning by high winds and sandstorms in the area.

That prediction came true once the teams down the lower end of the running order switched to the softer option tyres and instantly jumped up the timesheets. Drivers who had thought they were safe suddenly looked under threat as their times were leapfrogged by car after car: several big names had to burn an extra set of tyres in order to make their positions safe, while others - including Button, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso - watched as their times shuffled further and further down the timing screens and closer to the cut-off for getting into Q3.

When the game of musical laptimes ended, it was Michael Schumacher who emerged as the shock odd man out thanks to an excellent last gasp flying lap by Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen. While Schumacher's fastest lap was somewhat scruffy, it turned out not to be entirely down to him as the team subsequently reported an issue with the DRS rear wing system that prevented the former multiple world champion from getting back out on track again in time to do anything about his impending exit.

Schumacher was joined on the sidelines by Jean-Eric Vergne, Vitaly Petrov, Charles Pic, Pedro de La Rosa, Timo Glock and Narain Karthikeyan, with all of the cars within 107% of the fastest Q1 time set by Sauber's Sergio Perez.

After that shock early exit of a Mercedes, everyone was far more careful not to get caught out in similar fashion in Q2. But again, the track cleaned up a little bit more with every run, and by now the temperatures were starting to decline a little which made overheating less of an issue and again made the times start to tumble as the session went on.

Once again, then, it was all a matter of being out on the right tyres at exactly the right moment - and not messing up the chance when it came. The qualifying times again resembled a slot machine, and everyone stared at the screens wondering where their car and driver would end up when the dust literally settled.

In the end, times were so tight that as little as eight tenths of a second covered the top 15 drivers, with Kovalainen having decided he'd done his work for the day and settling for 16th and Pastor Maldonado hit with a KERS issue that prevented any running at all, leaving him down in 17th place in the times that will translate to a 22nd position on the grid after his penalty for a gearbox change.

The tight times proved to be a microscope for the slightest, smallest differences between drivers and in particular between team mates: Fernando Alonso was only half a second faster than Felipe Massa, but that meant that Alonso went through to Q3 in fifth place while Massa once again dropped out before the top ten shootout.

Similarly, Perez sneaked through but Kamui Kobayashi (just 0.146s behind) did not; and Romain Grosjean scored an impressive third place in Q2 only to oust his illustrious Lotus F1 team mate Kimi Raikkonen from out of the top ten in the process. Most impressive of all was Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, who sneaked through into Q3 after his much-vaunted team mate Verge had failed to even make it into Q2.

Force India's Paul di Resta also had a fine run to make it into Q3 while Nico Hulkenberg had to settle for 13th place on the grid - although the big question was whether either would ever be seen again on the world feed TV pictures, their decision to drop out of Friday's FP2 session seemingly having upset someone in the television control centre.

With Raikkonen in his shorts and possibly seeking out a cooling ice cream along with Kobayashi, Hulkenberg, Massa, Kovalainen and both Williams drivers Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado, all that was left was the final shootout for the top ten. Fairly quickly it was clear that Alonso and di Resta - who had both had to burn extra rubber to make it this far - were going to settle for a basic lap on used tyres and then call it a day, leaving the pole shootout to just eight men.

Mark Webber set the first flying lap of Q3 only to be quickly pipped by Lewis Hamilton, who was joined at the top by his McLaren team mate Jenson Button just 0.04s back after the first runs, with Sebastian Vettel slotting into fourth place just behind.

All eyes were on Nico Rosberg, who - much like he had in China - opted to come out just the one, later in the session. However, an error clipping the kerb towards the end of what had looked like being a pole-stealing performance meant that Rosberg failed to break the McLaren/Red Bull grip of the top four after all. He would have to settle for fifth on the grid alongside Daniel Ricciardo, while Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez lined up immediately astern.

Hamilton's last attempt simply didn't gel until the third sector, and his final time left him vulnerable to attack from the Red Bulls as it was clear that Jenson Button didn't have enough to challenge for the top spot either. Webber's time proved to be a tenth of a second behind Hamilton to slot in ahead of Button who had aborted his final lap, but then Sebastian Vettel rounded the final corner and took the chequered flag for the session with a lap of 1:32.422s, a mere 0.098s faster than Hamilton managed.

Having only managed 11th place on the grid a week ago in China, even Vettel sounded startled when the radio comms came on to let him know that he'd succeeded in clinching pole position in Sakhir. It didn't take him long to absorb the news and start to celebrate, however: after a tough start to the season which has not only seen him fail to take pole but not even manage to out-qualify his team mate, it appeared that the old Vettel magic was back - for Saturday at least.

24 hours till tell whether that Red Bull qualifying performance can be converted to a race-winning one, or whether the McLaren drivers have anything in reserve.

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