At one point on the third round of the Saturday qualifying session, McLaren team mates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had the front row all to themselves in a potential front row lock-out.

Unfortunately, a late flying lap from Sebastian Vettel was simply too fast for them and earned Red Bull the pole, while Jenson Button aborted his final lap and was demoted to fourth place on the grid alongside Vettel's team mate Mark Webber.

For all that, neither McLaren driver was looking particularly downhearted by how qualifying had turned out. On the contrary, Hamilton was positively beaming at how his run had gone.

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"I'm very happy with how qualifying went," he insisted. "I feel this was one of my best qualifying performances so far. Both my laps in Q3 were very good and I feel I got everything out of the car."

Compared with 2011 - which threatened a runaway Vettel/Red Bull victory from very early on - Hamilton seemed invigorated by just how tight the 2012 campaign was looking by comparison.

"This season is shaping up to be very interesting: it's anyone's for the taking, at the moment," he said - very much counting himself in among the contenders, of course.

Button wasn't quite as happy with how things had gone in qualifying, but was still optimistic.

"Fourth position wasn't quite what I'd been hoping for, but it's not too bad," he said. "It's always a horrible feeling on your final Q3 lap when the balance isn't quite where you want it. I couldn't get the best from the car so I pitted early to save the tyres."

For Button, the biggest surprise the absence of the Mercedes drivers Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg from the mix at the end.

"A nice surprise is that we're ahead of Nico, who was on pole just a week ago," he said. "We'd expected the Red Bulls to be very quick in qualifying, so to be close to them is a positive."

Overall Button was happy with the improvements made to the car overnight after difficult Friday practice sessions. "The car is definitely a lot better than it was yesterday," he said.

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh praised both Hamilton's "excellent lap" and Button being his "usual rapid and reliable self," before turning his attention to Sunday's business.

"The race will inevitably be a physically challenging one for all the drivers, as is always the case in hot climates such as Bahrain's," he said. "But we've got two tough racers in Lewis and Jenson and our intention is to go for the win."

"A good launch tomorrow will be very important," said Button. "Both Lewis and I will be starting on the dirty side of the grid, which makes things more difficult - so we'll need to get it right.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge," he added.