Marcus Ericsson kept TOM'S on-track for an historic hat-trick of victories in the prestigious annual Macau F3 Grand Prix, by pipping recently-crowned British F3 Champion Daniel Ricciardo to provisional pole position in Thursday's opening qualifying session for the 2009 edition of the Far Eastern classic.

The Swede moved to the top of the timesheets with only two minutes of the session remaining - and his advantage was secured when the red flags flew just moments later for an accident involving Signature rival Laurens Vanthoor at Police Bend.

"It was good to get there, but it wasn't so easy," revealed 2009 Japanese F3 Champion Ericsson, who had similarly led the way in morning free practice. "I was quite consistent with my times, so the speed was there, but on the first day you don't want to take too many risks. That is why it takes so long to build up to it. To be top in both sessions today is fantastic."

Ricciardo wound up an impressive second courtesy of a late flyer - the Aussie admitting that he had surpassed his pre-weekend expectations on the very first day of action - with leading F3 Euroseries contender Edoardo Mortara in third after trading times with fourth-placed Brendon Hartley throughout.

"Today exceeded my expectations to be honest," underlined Perth native Ricciardo, "so I'm really happy. I'm overwhelmed by the circuit; it's by far the best I've driven on, and I was smiling all the way round! We're getting there with the car; we need to make a few small changes and I need to make some improvements too. Tomorrow we will be starting from a higher level, which we can then build on further to get a good grid spot for Saturday."

"First qualifying has shown that we are able to battle for pole," affirmed Mortara, the first of seven F3 Euroseries competitors inside the top ten around the demanding Aut?dromo da Guia circuit on the south Chinese coast. "Everything just has to be right. Today, I had some bad luck as I twice had to overtake slower drivers while I was on a flying lap."

"This qualifying was really good," enthused Carlin star Hartley, "and I'm happy with the way things are going. The car feels good and I was P1 towards the end of the session. My engine was running great and I like this track. It is the most important race of the year, where everybody wants to do well.

"I reckon that I could have been first, but I wasn't able to find a clear lap in the closing stages of the session. Still, that wasn't a problem as tomorrow's second qualifying is usually faster anyway and it still feels like there's some time left in the car, so I'm feeling pretty confident."

Briton Sam Bird ended up fifth-quickest ahead of the unfortunate Vanthoor, whilst arguably the unluckiest and certainly the most frustrated driver was rookie Valtteri Bottas, who had topped the timing screens early on before crashing at Lisboa Bend 15 minutes in and slipping back down to the foot of the top ten in the final reckoning. F3 Euroseries Champion Jules Bianchi was a lowly 15th.

"First qualifying in Macau is almost like a free practice session," reported ART Grand Prix ace Bird, "as the lap times usually improve in second qualifying. Today, I was in second place for a long time and I am happy with our performance. In second qualifying tomorrow, anything can happen."

To see the first qualifying times in full, click here

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