Early in qualifying, it looked as though Lewis Hamilton's effort to take pole position for the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi was on treacherous grounds, as lock-ups left him struggling to set a decent flying lap. But the moment it all came together and clicked, he was unstoppable for the rest of the afternoon.
Sebastian Vettel also had an early scare in qualifying, but then seemed to settle down despite a glancing blow against the barrier. However, his efforts to start on the front row alongside Hamilton were thwarted by his team mate Mark Webber, and a sudden order over the team radio from Renault to stop the car immediately on the cool down lap after Q3 added late drama with the possibility that the Red Bull might have a serious issue that could even cost Vettel his hard-won third place on the grid.
And as for Fernando Alonso's hopes that Ferrari's raft of upgrades on the car for this weekend's race? Don't ask. There was practically steam coming out from under the Spaniard's helmet as Q3 went steadily downhill amid a welter of frustrating lost opportunities, including a number of on-track encounters with other cars that left him fuming in the twilight gloom.
Even at the start of qualifying an hour earlier, the sun had already been low in the sky and the shadows lengthening and deepening over the Yas Marina Circuit as Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi posted the first time of qualifying for the 2012 Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix.
Kobayashi's time of 1:43.939s set the initial benchmark but it was soon bested by Pastor Maldonado posting a lap of 1:42.595s in the Williams. That stood as the best lap for several minutes until the big guns came out to join the battle: Ferrari's Fernando Alonso went top only for Maldonado to respond straight away, but Alonso's subsequent effort of 1:41.939s was enough to see off the Venezuelan's challenge for the rest of Q1.
Jenson Button was also quickly posting fast times, but it took a little longer for his team mate Lewis Hamilton to get into his groove: his first two laps ended up with lock-ups, but once he found his rhythm the McLaren driver smashed Alonso's earlier best effort by a whopping 1:41.497s, which needed no further follow-up.
Despite their technical glitches in earlier practice sessions, the Red Bulls both felt confident enough to leave it late before coming out for their qualifying runs. Both drivers took time to get their tyres up to optimum conditions, but once they did they both safely leapt up into the top ten - despite Vettel having earlier drafted slightly wide over the kerbs and given the barriers a glancing blow that sparked dramatically in the low-light conditions.
With all the big names looking comfortably through to Q2 and six of the seven elimination spots handed to the usual suspects at Caterham, Marussia and HRT, attention at the end of the first part of qualifying focused on the identity of the seventh driver who would play no further part in proceedings.
Paul di Resta was clearly feeling the pressure, having earlier complained of traffic on his initial flying lap attempts in the Force India. Once he switched to the soft option tyres for his final run, he bounced up into the safety of 11th place with a lap of 1:42.572s leaving Kamui Kobayashi on the bubble in 17th and Jean-Eric Vergne in the drop spot one place back. Vergne gave it his all on his final flying lap but overcooked it and spun near the end; while he had time to rather the car up and start one final lap before the chequered flag came out, the far-from-ideal circumstances left him rattled and unable to improve his time - to Kobayashi's relief.
Virtually everyone was quick to take to the track at the start of Q2 as the floodlights started to noticeably take over from daylight in terms of track illumination. The first time of 1:42.313s was set by Sauber's Sergio Perez, who was already under investigation for allegedly impeding the Williams of Bruno Senna during Q1.
Perez' time was quickly bettered by Maldonado, the two Lotus cars of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, and then by Red Bull's Mark Webber. But it was Lewis Hamilton who once again seemed on peerless pace, setting a new benchmark of 1:41.366s six minutes into the 15-minute session which he subsequently reduced to 1:40.901s before returning to his garage, job done.
After a mistake on his first flier, Sebastian Vettel moved into second place behind Hamilton with a time of 1:41.511s, shrugging off any concerns about lingering damage from that close encounter with the barrier in Q1. His team mate Mark Webber popped in a lap of 1:41.277s, with Fernando Alonso
Nico Rosberg finished the second session safely in six place, but there was yet more disappointment for his Mercedes team mate Michael Schumacher who was unable to get the pace he needed on his final flying lap and who then ran out of time to get to the start line before the chequered flag came out.
It had been a nervous final few minutes of Q2 for Felipa Massa, Jenson Button and Pastor Maldonado, who were being pushed steadily back down the standings toward the danger zone, and the spectre of missing out on Q3 loomed. Fortunately few of the midfield teams were able to find the pace to depose them before the end of the session: Force India's Nico Hulkenberg missed the cut by 0.112s, ahead of Perez in 12th place - although he will likely need a visit to the race stewards' office to determine whether or not he keeps that for the start of Sunday afternoon's Grand Prix.
Di Resta finished Q2 a disappointing 13th place just ahead of Michael Schumacher, while Bruno Senna could only manage to claim 15th place on the grid. Kamui Kobayashi and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo were the other two drivers to fail to make it through to Q3.
The ten minute pole position shootout stage of qualifying got underway with Kimi Raikkonen eager to get his Lotus out onto the track. His initial time was 1:41.756s which was quickly beaten by Fernando Alonso, but Lewis Hamilton wiped the floor with a lap of 1:40.630s fully a half second better than anyone else to lay a convincing claim on provisional pole position.
Vettel slipped into second place with a time of 1:41.093s four tenths off that of Hamilton, with Webber just behind his team mate after a lap of 1:41.228s that was good enough to demote Alonso to fourth place in front of Rosberg and Button. Webber and Alonso were both bumped down a spot when Pastor Maldonado came out for his own late qualifying run and promptly popped up into third place with a time of 1:41.226s.
Despite his huge advantage at the front, Hamilton wasn't going to get caught dozing in the pit lane in case the Red Bulls put on a late surge, and so he was back out to defend from any concerted push by the Red Bulls in the dying seconds.
Sure enough, Webber cut the gap to the McLaren by his final qualifying effort of 1:40.978s to go second. Vettel also improved, only by two hundredths of a second - not nearly enough to challenge for the front row. But there was even bigger drama to come moments after the chequered flag when Vettel's Red Bull pulled over and stopped on track, seemingly unable to get back to the pit lane.
There was also bad news for Fernando Alonso, who had grown increasingly frustrated as qualifying wore on: he was convinced that he had been impeded in Q2 by Mark Webber down the start/finish straight although replays didn't seem to really support that, but he had a stronger case for behing held up in the pit lane by an unsafe release by Lotus for Romain Grosjean - another post-session matter for the stewards to look into.
A mistake on his final flying lap meant that he not only couldn't improve his time, he lost out to better late efforts from Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button, bumping him down to seventh place on the grid and a painful dent in his hopes of staying in touch with Sebastian Vettel in the title battle. He'll start alongside Nico Rosberg on the fourth row of the grid, ahead of Felipa Massa and Romain Grosjean.
Of course, a lot could yet change if some of those pending stewards' decisions shake up the starting grid before the lights go out. And the most critical issue in terms of the title battle will be the investigation into the cause of Renault directing Sebastian Vettel to stop abruptly on the cool down lap, and whether that means there is an alternator, KERS, gearbox or engine issue with dramatic implications for the championship battle at Abu Dhabi.
If it's an engine, the team could still replace the unit under parc fermé conditions and allow Vettel to take his place on the grid for the start of the race. But if it were to be the worst case scenario of the car having been under-fueled, Vettel could be demoted to the back row for the start of Sunday's Grand Prix.
But away from the Vettel/Alonso title drama, nothing was getting in the way of Lewis Hamilton's emphatic, brilliant pole position. It's the 75th for the McLaren/Mercedes combination in F1, and Hamilton literally bounced into the weighing area on his way to the post-qualifying press conference, looking on fine form to deliver at least one more win to McLaren before he leaves the team for Mercedes at the end of 2012.Full qualifying session times are available