Felipe Massa maintained his reputation as the best qualifier of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship campaign, by storming to his fourth pole position of the season for the inaugural European Grand Prix in Valencia this weekend - as the anticipated surprises failed to materialise and the four key title protagonists annexed the top four places on the starting grid for the first time since Bahrain almost five months ago.

In cool and breezy conditions and with the weather uncertain, cars took to the track no sooner had the lights signalled the start of Q1. Nelsinho Piquet was one of the first men out, and came perilously close to kissing the concrete wall on his way to setting the first representative lap time, despite collecting a stray bird en route.

Jarno Trulli - who had suffered with a lack of track time throughout practice due to various gearbox woes - soon demoted the young Brazilian, only to be displaced himself in equally short measure by Toyota team-mate Timo Glock, the reigning GP2 Series king still on a high from his Hungaroring podium.

Robert Kubica then blew that time out of the water by recording the first sub 1m39s lap of the weekend, with the Force India pairing of Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil - now benefiting from the Silverstone-based squad's seamless-shift gearbox for the first time - and Williams' Nico Rosberg also out on-track early on.

With dark clouds moving ever-closer in from the sea, Ferrari's Massa, on soft tyres, slotted into a lowly sixth place, just ahead of David Coulthard in the Red Bull Racing - which had proved to be a real handful on the opening day, able to trade lap times with just the Force Indias for company - with Kimi Raikkonen subsequently faring little better than had his team-mate.

Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, added to Maranello's misery by going quickest of all halfway through the opening phase of qualifying, with the impressive S?bastien Bourdais - clearly enjoying a circuit similar in style to those on which he so regularly shone across the Pond in the Champ Car series - moving up to second place ahead of Kubica.

With Ferrari changing over to the favoured harder tyre, Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Heikki Kovalainen could curiously manage just ninth position. Compatriot Raikkonen, by contrast, was now flying on the harder rubber, setting the quickest time of anyone in sector one, though the end result would be good enough only for fifth.

Home hero Fernando Alonso made amends for a scrappy first effort by moving up into second place - to the evident delight of the partisan supporters thronging the harbour-side Juan Carlos I Marina circuit - four tenths clear of team-mate Piquet.

Friday practice star Jenson Button was again showing extremely well up in fifth, just behind Sebastian Vettel - making it both Scuderia Toro Rossos inside the top four - before Nico Rosberg shot up into second as the session neared a close.

That put fellow former GP2 race-winner Piquet under pressure with just under seven minutes remaining, along with Nick Heidfeld, Rubens Barrichello - not as at ease with the new track as team-mate Button - and the two Force Indias, with Mark Webber and Kazuki Nakajima on the bubble in 14th and 15th respectively.

Kubica, meanwhile, was complaining of his BMW-Sauber bottoming along the ground, as spots of rain appeared on the heli-cam, and Massa set out from the pits once more in an attempt to better P12.

Maximum attack saw a considerable improvement from the Brazilian, as he laid down a new marker to erstwhile pace-setter and world championship rival Hamilton and re-ignited Ferrari's hopes. Raikkonen improved to eighth, but the BMWs were looking in danger, with Kubica just twelfth and Heidfeld held up behind Glock.

Piquet was another to be delayed by Glock, but the Renault rookie saved the situation with a gutsy effort to haul himself up into the top 15, as team-mate Alonso went quickest of anyone in the middle split, and second-fastest overall by the scant margin of nine hundredths of a second.

That time, though, was subsequently sensationally beaten by Vettel, and then just seconds later by Trulli, who would end the opening session on top after leaping up the order from 15th place. Glock joined the Italian in the top ten in seventh, but a poor first sector from Coulthard would leave the Scot in the drop zone, in company with fellow Brit Button and Honda team-mate Barrichello, who languished in last position, half a second shy of next-slowest man Sutil.

Nakajima hauled himself to safety in tenth place, with Raikkonen just squeezing into Q2 in 13th place, as the top ten read Trulli, Vettel, Massa, Alonso, Kubica, pre-weekend favourite Hamilton, Glock, Webber, Rosberg and Bourdais, and a balance-afflicted Button, Coulthard, Fisichella, Barrichello and Sutil were all left to watch the remainder of qualifying from the pit wall.

Raikkonen was again out early in Q2 with the rain edging ever-closer, with Massa, Bourdais and Kubica joining the Finn on-track, the latter setting the early pace, two tenths faster than Raikkonen, and the defending world champion himself encouragingly four tenths quicker than he had gone in Q1.

Vettel then once again showed his hand by lowering the target by a further two tenths as a potential upset hung in the air, with Hamilton struggling to slow his car down sufficiently quickly on his way to second position - a place that would be stolen away by the impressive Trulli just seconds later.

With barely six minutes of the 15-minute session remaining, Alonso, Glock, Heidfeld, Piquet and Webber were all in the drop zone, and both McLarens sat ahead of both Ferraris. Kovalainen was the first man to take to the circuit again in the dying moments of Q2, followed out by Raikkonen and Massa.

Kovalainen and Raikkonen failed to improve, but Massa did - jumping up to second - as twelfth-placed Glock, just eight hundredths of a second adrift of the top ten, hammered his Toyota across the kerbs and the chequered flag was readied.

With few improvements at the close, Nakajima, Alonso, Glock, Webber and Piquet were all left out of the reckoning at the end of Q2, the Spaniard failing to make it through for only the second time this season after running wide on his last lap - surely the most disappointing result of the day for the thousands of fans present.

There was happier news, though, for Vettel, Massa, Heidfeld - who hoisted himself up to safety with a last-ditch charge - Trulli, Hamilton, Kubica, Kovalainen, Raikkonen, Rosberg and Bourdais, who all progressed on to Q3, the latter for the first time in his fledgling career in the top flight and the top eight blanketed by a mere four tenths of a second at the chequered flag.

Trulli was the first man onto the circuit in Q3, followed by STR duo Bourdais and Vettel, the latter making the early running as he looked to be going aggressive to his team-mate's circumspection in terms of fuel loads for the race.

Hamilton and then Raikkonen subsequently lowered the barrier again, before Massa took a further half second off the target and Kubica placed third to demote Hamilton to the outside of row two.

With just under three minutes remaining it was unexpectedly an all-Ferrari front row, the two scarlet machines finally coming to life with fuel on-board. Indeed, the last time Massa sat on pole it was around a street circuit - in Monaco - but Hamilton threatened that dominance by stealing the top spot on his final flyer.

With Vettel also lapping under Massa's previous pole time, the Brazilian knew he would have to pull something extra-special out of the bag if he was to reclaim his superiority - and that is just what he did.

As his STR rival blew his chance in the middle sector, Massa crossed the finish line to grab pole by just under two tenths, pushing Hamilton back to second, with a late effort from Kubica displacing Raikkonen to fourth.

Kovalainen recovered from a poor first split to eventually leapfrog the impressive Vettel into fifth, with Trulli, Heidfeld, Rosberg and Bourdais rounding out the top ten - and, perhaps most incredibly of all, 60 minutes having passed with still no driver having clouted the circuit's unforgiving walls...

To see the qualifying times in full, click here