It was closer than many people had expected, and both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber made uncharacteristic mistakes under pressure in Q3, but in the end there was no doubt about it: Red Bull had the measure of their rivals and convincingly claimed their third consecutive front-row lock out of the season for the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of India.

Vettel recovered from an early misstep in Q3, while Webber was thwarted in his final run with a big lock-up that meant he wasn't able to challenge for pole. Lewis Hamilton put in a late flier to pip his current McLaren team mate Jenson Button for third place, while Fernando Alonso has the unexpected bonus of being joined on the third row of the grid by his Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa.

Force India's Paul di Resta had been the first man to set a flying lap on the Saturday qualifying session, with a time of 1:28.786s on a still-dusty 3.192-mile Buddh International Circuit. His team mate Nico Hulkenberg was then the first driver to dip under below the 1:28s mark with a time of 1:27.766s five minutes into Q1.

Williams' Bruno Senna advanced the benchmark to 1:26.980s just before the midpoint of the session, but then it was time for the front runners to spring into life with Sebastian Vettel immediately going to the top of the timesheets with his first flying lap of 1:26.621s.

Ferrari managed to slide Fernando Alonso into second place with a time of 1:26.829s, as the team attempted to use slipstream drafting down the long straights to improve their top line speed, but Felipe Massa was once again struggling and briefly spun at turn 15, although he was able to recover the car and continue after a brief pause.

The yellow flags for Massa's spin meant that Mark Webber was late setting his own flying lap, but he comfortably beat Alonso's time with a lap of 1:26.771s to make an appearance in third place, with Lewis Hamilton having gone second with a time of 1:26.554s.

A flurry of late flying laps saw the order change in the final minutes of Q1, with Pastor Maldonado ending up on top of the timesheets with a lap of 1:26.048s a third of a second ahead of Vettel's latest lap of 1:26.387s. Nico Rosberg bumped Lewis Hamilton down to fourth place just ahead of his McLaren team mate Jenson Button, while Lotus' Kimi Raikkonen made a late improvement to sixth place ahead of Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso.

All of that meant that the usual suspects were left in the Q1 drop zone, and were joined by the man who had been first out on track. Paul di Resta was paying for that early outing in the dust and now had to hustle to avoid being eliminated. Despite getting caught up in slower traffic he was able to push himself into the relative safety of 14th place.

That left the Toro Rosso duo scrapping over who would be watching from the sidelines, and Daniel Ricciardo's last lap of 1:27.006s was good enough to seal the deal for the Australian and left Jean-Eric Vergne with the ignominy of an 18th place on the starting grid for Sunday's Grand Prix.

The chequered flag was out and the action all-but over by the time Heikki Kovalainen triggered local waved yellows in turns 10 and 11 by sliding wide and ending up stuck in the gravel trap. For the remaining 17 cars still in the running, Q2 was when things started to get serious.

The green light marking the start of Q2 came out while the track marshals were still clearing up the stricken Caterham. Di Resta was once again the first man out on track this time with an early effort of 1:27.011s, as Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo and Williams' Bruno Senna also made early appearances out on track.

Vettel's first flier five laps in to the second part of qualifying took the times to a whole level with a lap of 1:25.435s, which put him three tenths ahead of his team mate Mark Webber and half a second ahead of Rosberg who was narrowly ahead of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton's opening gambits. Hamilton looked faster on his next lap, but then slid wide in turn 7 and had to abandon the effort for the time being.

A flurry of improving laps with two minutes to go before the end of Q2 saw Felipe Massa on the bubble in tenth place and Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg all looking in grave danger of elimination. Raikkonen and Hulkenberg both managed to muscle their way into the top ten with their final efforts, but Massa responded and Hulkenberg was promptly pushed back out again and left in 11th place on the grid.

Hulkenberg joined his team mate di Resta (16th) on the sidelines for Q3, while Romain Grosjean (11th), Bruno Senna (13th), Michael Schumacher (14th) and Kamui Kobayashi (17th) all suffered the indignity of being eliminated while their team mates progressed. The seventh man to exit qualifying was Daniel Ricciardo, who will start Sunday's Grand Prix from 15th position.

Vettel's one and only lap had proved unbeatable, but the surprise was that Jenson Button had come within 0.032s of it, seemingly confirming that the McLaren was looking much more on it on Saturday in qualifying as attention turned to the top ten shootout pressure cooker of Q3.

Button's team mate Hamilton was first out on track. There was a slight pause before Fernando Alonso roused himself to head out, and Sebastian Vettel was then hot on his heels out of pit lane followed by Maldonado, Rosberg and Webber.

Hamilton suffered a brake lock-up in turn 4 which thwarted his first flying lap, and them there was the rare sight of the hitherto perfect Vettel nearly losing the back end of the Red Bull into turn 7 which meant that he too was unable to post a time and instead came into the pits for fresh soft option tyres.

Instead, the first blood went to Mark Webber who topped the timesheets with a first effort of 1:25.327s, while Jenson Button went second with a lap of 1:25.763s and Alonso posted a time of 1:25.773s for provisional third place. That state of affairs lasted only as long as it took Sebastian Vettel to return to the fray, and this time there were no major errors and he went top with a time of 1:25.283s.

As the chequered flag came out, everyone embarked on their final chance of taking pole. Button, Hamilton and Webber scrambled to find space from one another, and in the end it was Hamilton who got the best run as he pipped his team mate for third place with a final effort of 1:25.544s.

However, ultimately neither McLaren could do anything about the two Red Bulls, despite Webber squandering his final run at challenging for outright pole position with a big lock-up in turn 3. That meant another front row lock-out for Vettel and Webber, and an all-McLaren second row ahead of an all-Ferrari row three - although the gap between the two teams was no where near as dominating as many had expected after McLaren's lacklustre Friday practice form.

Kimi Raikkonen will start alongside Sergio Perez, while Pastor Maldonado did well to get through to Q3 and will start alongside Nico Rosberg, who opted not to set a flying lap in the final part of qualifying in order to maximise his available strategies for the race.

Much will now depend on whether Buddh proves as resistent to overtaking as it did in its maiden outing last year: if it does, then their qualifying success could mean that Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel have a choke hold on the race and potentially the driver and constructor championship battles as a result.

But McLaren and Ferrari will be intent on proving that in motor sport there is no such thing as a racing certainty, and both teams will be ready to pounce on any opportunities that present themselves when the lights go out on Sunday.