Lewis Hamilton has thrown down the gauntlet to Ferrari Formula 1 World Championship challenger Felipe Massa, responding to the criticism over his Fuji performance only a week earlier by thoroughly dominating qualifying in Shanghai.

Not only will the McLaren-Mercedes ace begin the Chinese Grand Prix from the top spot on the grid, but he also outpaced Massa to the tune of almost six tenths of a second as the Brazilian found himself - for the second race in a row - behind team-mate Kimi Raikkonen when the chequered flag dropped.

Japanese Grand Prix star Nelsinho Piquet in the Renault was the first man out in Q1, with Toyota's Timo Glock similarly on-track no sooner had the session begun. It was the Brazilian who made the early running from Honda veteran Rubens Barrichello and Williams' Nico Rosberg.

Sebastian Vettel in the Scuderia Toro Rosso and Massa were the first of the big guns to show their hand, the latter immediately leaping to the top of the timing screens before world championship leader Hamilton - who had embarrassingly overshot the pit-lane entry in the morning, bringing back uncomfortable memories of this time twelve months ago - atoned for his misdemeanour by threatening to blow everyone out of the water.

S?bastien Bourdais and Heikki Kovalainen were also showing strongly up in the top three, as Massa's Ferrari team-mate Raikkonen slotted into just fifth and Hamilton - on the harder tyre - confirmed his promise by taking more than half a second off Massa's opening effort to vault into P1.

The soon-to-retire David Coulthard - Red Bull Racing's sole real hope in qualifying after team-mate Mark Webber's engine had blown in morning practice, necessitating an engine change for the Australian and the resultant ten-place grid penalty that goes with it - moved into the top ten in ninth, with similarly Renault-powered former double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso slotting into seventh with his first run.

An improvement for Barrichello with six minutes of Q1 remaining pushed team-mate Jenson Button and Glock into the drop zone, in company with the two Force Indias of Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella and - surprisingly - outside title contender Robert Kubica, the Pole complaining of understeer in his BMW-Sauber.

Piquet underlined Renault's dramatic recent upsurge in form by leaping up the order into third, leaving experienced hands Coulthard and Jarno Trulli on the bubble and Williams rookie Kazuki Nakajima in trouble.

As Hamilton sat supremely confident in the pits, championship rival Massa headed out on-track for one more run as the clock ticked down, as did the other McLaren-Mercedes of Heikki Kovalainen, and whilst the former made no improvement the Finn certainly did, closing to within six hundredths of his team-mate - and a full three tenths faster than the quicker of the two Ferraris.

Raikkonen, meanwhile, was languishing in a lowly twelfth position, whilst BMW showed they had learned their costly lesson from Fuji as Kubica headed out on the softer rubber for his final effort. Vettel improved to third for STR as Trulli leapt up eight positions into seventh, leaving Coulthard in perilous waters.

Webber shot into tenth, but his team-mate, who found himself baulked by the BMW of Nick Heidfeld, could manage just 16th, with Nakajima similarly falling short in 17th - saving Barrichello's bacon.

Button, Sutil and Fisichella joined Coulthard and Nakajima in those who failed to make it through to Q2, as Hamilton led the way from Kovalainen, Vettel, late improver Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Piquet, Trulli, Glock and Heidfeld. The second BMW of Kubica only narrowly made the cut in 14th.

As Q2 dawned, tellingly the first car out was the Ferrari of Raikkonen - perhaps betraying the Scuderia's fear that McLaren was in the driving seat - with Friday's birthday boy setting the fastest lap of the session thus far, as the two Toyotas of Trulli and Glock each lapped around half a second adrift.

Kovalainen, though, soon demoted his countryman, as Vettel and Alonso again showed strong form up in third and fourth respectively, before Massa annexed the top spot by just under a tenth, Hamilton's opening effort slotting him into a modest fifth, four tenths shy of the scarlet machine.

The BMWs were, as has become somewhat customary, the final two cars to set a time, FP3 pace-setter Heidfeld four tenths quicker than Kubica as the duo placed sixth and eleventh respectively. Hamilton, meanwhile, was just three tenths inside the top ten in fifth position as the boot looked like changing feet, and the Briton was forced - unlike second-placed team-mate Kovalainen - to venture out onto the circuit once more.

As all bar the top four re-took to the track in the closing moments, the pressure was on Hamilton and Kubica, with the Pole, Glock, Piquet, Barrichello and Rosberg all in the danger zone.

Kubica's first split was not enough to move him into the top ten, and his second sector was further away still, as a committed Bourdais moved up a spot into eighth, Webber improved to ninth and Trulli clung on by the skin of his teeth in P10.

As Kubica completed his lap he was still almost three tenths away from the top ten - a disaster for his already faint championship aspirations - whilst in a tale of contrasting fortunes Hamilton found significant pace to end the session on top to the tune of just under two tenths, from Massa, Kovalainen, Raikkonen, Vettel, Heidfeld, Alonso, Bourdais, Webber and Trulli, with a last-ditch effort just unable to save Piquet, who wound up eleventh ahead of the frustrated Kubica, Glock, Barrichello and Rosberg.

Vettel, Trulli, Raikkonen and Hamilton were all out early in Q3, and with race fuel loads on-board the latter's McLaren was suddenly looking very strong in the first sector, only for poor middle and last splits to leave him half a second shy at the end of his first lap. Massa was similarly off the pace, as Kovalainen made it a battle of the Finns at the head of the order by narrowly pipping Raikkonen to the provisional pole position by the margin of a mere hundredth of a second.

Behind the pair, Webber - no doubt lightly-fuelled given his impending demotion - vaulted Massa and Hamilton to go third with his first effort, with Alonso, Heidfeld, Vettel, Trulli and Bourdais filling out the remainder of the top ten and everyone left with another run to go.

Both Raikkonen and Hamilton were indisputably on it on their final efforts, the latter almost half a second up in the middle sector this time, and as the Ferrari ace lowered Kovalainen's marker by just over three tenths of a second, the driver of the sister MP4-23 took the same chunk off again to expertly snatch the top spot away.

As Massa could do no better than third - again conceding second-best in the Maranello camp to Raikkonen, a man he has generally dominated season-long - and Alonso improved to fourth, all eyes turned to Kovalainen, but the Finn endured a scrappy final tour that left him just fifth, more than six tenths away from pole and meaning team-mate Hamilton will have three 'enemy' cars between himself and his first ally on the grid come Sunday.

Behind the top five, Webber wound up sixth but will slip back to 16th when the order shakes out, alongside team-mate Coulthard, with Heidfeld, Vettel, Trulli and Bourdais next up and Piquet set for promotion into the top ten for the first time since Hungary back in August.

To see the qualifying times in full, click here


Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment