A display of complete strategic skill and confidence on the part of both Red Bull and their lead driver resulted in an assured pole position, the fifth of the season for Sebastian Vettel as he dared his rivals to come and catch him at the front - and proved them wanting.

Williams' Pastor Maldonado had been first out on track once the lights went green for the start of Q1, and who set the first flying lap of qualifying with a time of 1:48.458s, but that didn't last long before Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Lotus F1's Romain Grosjean resumed their FP3 duel with Hamilton claiming early honours before going top with a lap of 1:47.087s.

Hamilton's team mate Nico Rosberg cut through this early phantom play with a lap of 1:46.288s, as Sauber, Caterham and Marussia started to break out the super-soft tyres in a bid to catch the leading teams unawares and perhaps pull off a shock progression into Q2. Sure enough, Nico Hulkenberg's first lap of 1:45.381s was enough to put him top, with his team mate Esteban Gutierrez slotting into third place; however, the Caterham and Marussia drivers were unable to replicate this surge and continued to languish in the drop-zone.

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It was enough to send a shiver a fear down the rest of the field, however, as the Red Bulls of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber finally made their entrance into the fray with just seven minutes remaining, followed by Sergio Perez who like his McLaren team mate Jenson Button had gone for a single late run on super-softs.

Despite being on the medium tyres, Webber instantly shot to the top spot with a lap of 1:45.271s with his similarly-shod team mate Vettel half a second back but still safely tucking into third behind Hulkenberg. The general move to options started to take hold with three minutes remaining as Rosberg briefly returned to the top before it became a McLaren 1-2, after which Lewis Hamilton put things seemingly beyond doubt with a mighty lap of 1:44.196s almost a second ahead of the rest.

Behind him, the times started to revolve like a one-armed bandit's display and it became a matter of survival getting into Q2 after the chequered flag: a very late switch to supersofts saved Felipe Massa's blushes in the Ferrari, but his success contributed to pushing Force India's Paul di Resta into the drop zone where he was joined by Maldonado (half a second slower than his team mate Valtteri Bottas despite never racing here before) and the 'usual suspects' at the back. Giedo van ger Garde suffered a late hit against the wall which saw him drop to 20th behind his team mate Charles Pic on the grid for Sunday's race, but both Caterham drivers still ended up qualifying ahead of their counterparts Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton at Marussia.

Other than the Red Bulls, the only driver to tough it out n the medium compounds for the whole of Q1 was Grosjean, who was still safely threw to Q2 despite ending up in 14th place in the timesheets. That was three spots behind his team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who had gone into the session complaining of lower back pain that saw him doing what he could to limit his time in the car on Saturday.

There was no question of which tyre to use in the second phase of qualifying, with scrubbed supersofts being the only early contender as the cars streamed out with the exception of the Red Bulls, McLaren and Romain Grosjean. The Mercedes duo went straight into the 1:43s territory at the top of the timesheets in the first half of the 15-minute session, with Rosberg's run just three hundreds ahead of that of Hamilton.

When the majority of cars came in for a mid-session break, Vettel, Webber and Grosjean made themselves at home on an otherwise deserted track. Unsurprisingly Vettel put that opportunity to perfect use and went top with a time of 1:42.905s with Webber moving into second spot albeit eight tenths behind his teammate, and Grosjean likely to be disappointed to be a second off the pace in fifth that seemed unrepresentative of his earlier promise.

Job done, the Red Bulls retired to pit lane to join Mercedes for interval cocktails, leaving the track to the other 14 cars which now included for the first time a very late appearance by the two McLarens. Button was able to just sneak into the top ten to progress to Q3 along with Ferrari pair Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa who joined an impressive Esteban Gutierrez and Red Bull's driver-in-waiting Daniel Ricciardo in getting through to the pole shootout round.

Pushed out in the final seconds were Gutierrez' Sauber team mate Nico Hulkenberg and Ricciardo's fellow Toro Rosso man Jean-Eric Vergne, both of whom were able to edge out the ailing Raikkonen who will start from 13th on the grid in Sunday's race ahead of Sergio Perez, Adrian Sutil and Valtteri Bottas, all of whom would have to watch the rest of qualifying from the team garage when the lights went green for the final ten-minute session.

This time the Red Bulls weren't holding back and were straight into action, Vettel setting a blistering target of 1:42.841s that was immediately four tenths faster than Rosberg, Webber, Hamilton and Grosjean. The rest of the field left it late before making an appearance, by which time Vettel was already safely tucked up in the garage contemplating his selection of night caps.

He was right to be confident; Rosberg improved but only to within a tenth of pole, while Mark Webber's best time was beaten by a late improvement from Romain Grosjean for third place and Hamilton dropped to fifth place in the final seconds ahead of Massa, Alonso, Button and Ricciardo to form the top ten on the grid for Sunday's race.

Going early in Q3 and then watching the final minutes from pit lane had been a gamble on Vettel's part, one that the driver himself subsequently described as a "weird feeling", but it was one based on considerable experience and a growing confidence on Red Bull's part that was anything but misplaced. If the race itself is as well managed by the team and its star driver on Sunday, then win number seven in 2013 is surely only a little over 24 hours away for the reigning world champion...

Full qualifying times are available.