Felipe Massa blitzed the field in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos this weekend to secure his third 'home' pole position in succession - as Formula 1 World Championship favourite Lewis Hamilton came unstuck to leave himself at the mercy of the pack come race day.

Massa's sixth top spot of the season - and 15th of his top flight career - could not have come at a more crucial moment, and shifts the pressure onto Hamilton's shoulders as the race dawns. With Jarno Trulli and Kimi Raikkonen also separating the Ferrari star from his McLaren-Mercedes adversary, and rain forecast for Sunday, the grand prix looks set to be a thriller.

With the title battle poised on a knife-edge - and the shortest lap of the year having seen the top ten blanketed by less than four tenths of a second in the morning's final practice session - the tension ahead of qualifying was palpable. One small slip around the Autodromo Carlos Pace could turn out to be very costly indeed.

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Home favourite Nelsinho Piquet was the first man to take to the circuit for Renault in Q1, with his team-mate Fernando Alonso having again led the way in FP3, albeit admittedly on low fuel. Toyota's Timo Glock soon displaced the Brazilian, though, with the Force Indias of Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil similarly out on-track.

Rubens Barrichello produced a strong opening lap to push compatriot Piquet down to third, whilst the lion's share of the crowd's enthusiasm was reserved for Massa, as Trulli demoted his team-mate from the top spot and Heikki Kovalainen and Massa slotted into second and third respectively as the battle proved to be every bit as hotly-contested as had been anticipated.

Hamilton then silenced the grandstands by shooting to the top of the timing screens by just 13 hundredths of a second, as 2007 world champion Raikkonen - whose Ferrari was, in the words of ITV-F1 commentator Martin Brundle, 'understeering like a Cross Channel ferry' - needed two runs to put himself fourth.

Massa's second flyer was no improvement, but Sebastian Vettel conversely vaulted up from 17th into fifth in his Scuderia Toro Rosso, leaving Fisichella, Sutil Alonso and the BMW-Sauber duo of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica in the danger zone with nine minutes remaining.

A spinning Glock between turns one and two destroyed both Renault drivers' efforts, whilst an improvement from Fisichella pushed Williams' Kazuki Nakajima - celebrating the first anniversary of his grand prix debut this weekend in S?o Paulo - into the drop area.

A significant gain by Piquet, however, put the under-pressure rookie third, seven spots clear of Alonso, as the two BMWs left their opening runs dangerously late, only venturing out into the fray with seven minutes remaining, and when they did so slotting into just eleventh (Heidfeld) and 14th (Kubica) positions respectively.

That left David Coulthard and S?bastien Bourdais in perilous waters as the times continued to ebb and flow, though the Scot - beginning his final F1 race this weekend - popped up into twelfth to put the pressure onto Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber, who slipped into the danger zone in company with Williams star Nico Rosberg.

A subsequent run on fresh tyres as Hamilton remained in the pits saw Massa lower the fastest marker by a further four tenths - to the clear delight of the partisan crowds thronging the circuit - with Raikkonen making it a double blow by the Scuderia to back his team-mate up in second.

As just a second separated third-placed Hamilton and 17th-placed Rosberg, the field trickled out of the pit-lane again as the clock ticked down. Glock re-inforced Toyota's pace by setting the fastest middle sector of anyone, as Kubica improved to seventh, Coulthard re-affirmed his twelfth place, Alonso vaulted up to fourth and Bourdais saved his skin by moving from 20th to eleventh.

Amidst the flurry of late changes, the two Williams' proved to be the biggest losers, as Nakajima, Jenson Button - whose woes were compounded when his Honda stopped out on the circuit late on - Rosberg, Fisichella and Sutil all missed the cut, whilst Massa led the field ahead of Raikkonen, Hamilton, Alonso, Glock, Trulli, Piquet, Kovalainen, Heidfeld and Kubica.

Glock headed out onto the track first when Q2 dawned, and though the young German set the early marker team-mate Trulli soon bettered it. Raikkonen, meanwhile, was continuing to grapple with his F2008 - albeit moving to the top of the order - before Massa lowered the target again, throwing the gauntlet down to world championship favourite Hamilton.

The Briton was quick to respond, demoting his only remaining title rival by a scant two hundredths of a second - again proving the close-knit nature of the field this weekend - as Kovalainen slotted into fourth, just ahead of McLaren predecessor Alonso.

Vettel was the next man to show his hand, displacing the Spaniard from fifth, as Glock stunned the establishment by snatching third, barely five hundredths adrift of pace-setter Hamilton. That left the two BMWs, two RBRs and Barrichello outside the top ten with five minutes remaining, and whilst Kubica could manage no better than twelfth on his first run, Heidfeld's effort was good enough for sixth.

With three minutes left on the clock, Bourdais, Kubica, Webber, Coulthard and Barrichello sat in the drop zone, as Kovalainen finally put all three sectors together to storm to the top of the order with the quickest time in both the first and final split, Glock surprisingly topping sector two.

So tight was the order, though, that every driver but the flying Finn felt the need to head out on-track for one final run, as Alonso, Trulli and Piquet sat on the edge of the top ten. Raikkonen's attempt was not enough to improve from fifth, as Heidfeld abandoned his last lap - but was already safely through to Q3.

Team-mate Kubica, conversely, was not, winding up just 13th, joined as a Q2 victim by Piquet and Webber just ahead, and Coulthard and Barrichello just behind, as Vettel produced a stunning final effort to vault into second behind Kovalainen, with STR team-mate Bourdais also saving himself with a last-gasp improvement to eighth.

The top ten at the end of Q2 therefore read Kovalainen, Vettel, Hamilton, Massa, Glock, Raikkonen, Heidfeld, Bourdais, Alonso and Trulli - the latter duo's earlier pace seemingly having deserted them, but all eyes, and all efforts, now firmly turned to Q3.

Glock was again the first man to venture out in the top ten shoot-out, laying down the early marker, but countryman and Q2 star Vettel rapidly took more than a second off that time, as the big guns came out to play. Massa was quicker still - and, crucially, two tenths quicker than Hamilton in sector one - and moved to the top by just over seven tenths, as his McLaren rival ended his run a full eight tenths adrift, and behind Vettel, following an overly-aggressive 'out' lap.

Raikkonen joined team-mate Massa on the front row in second, before Trulli produced an astonishing effort to split the two scarlet machines, with Kovalainen placing fourth ahead of the sister Silver Arrow.

A determined Massa headed out early for his second run, completing a very slow 'out' lap, but neither he nor Hamilton were able to beat the Brazilian's first attempt in sector one. Massa, though, did succeed in bettering his earlier effort in the final reckoning, nicking almost another tenth off the pole time.

Hamilton, though, was struggling, and though he did snatch second place, that was almost half a second adrift of his quarry - and, worse still, was beaten in quick succession by Raikkonen and a staggering last effort from Trulli, who again split the two Maranello men on the front row, only this time for good, to secure Toyota's finest starting position of the year in the very final race.

With Raikkonen and Hamilton completing row two, the Briton has rear-gunner Kovalainen in fifth but - somewhat more unnervingly - arch-nemesis Alonso directly behind him in sixth, and just two tenths separating the Spaniard from former team-mate Trulli up on the front row. Vettel, Heidfeld, Bourdais and Glock rounded out the top ten at the chequered flag.

To see the qualifying times in full, click here