If the new Red Bull Racing RB7 is in the region of three-to-five tenths clear of the chasing pack in F1 2011 as Adrian Newey contends, then Sebastian Vettel is worth just as much again on the basis of Australian Grand Prix qualifying today, as the defending world champion blitzed the field by the best part of a second.

On a blustery and overcast day Down Under in Melbourne, Vettel had already laid down an ominous marker by lapping more than eight tenths out-of-reach of anybody else during FP3, and he would maintain that kind of superiority right the way through qualifying. Even more dauntingly for his pursuers, the young German didn't even need the benefit of KERS to snare the top spot so commandingly.

His first effort was enough in Q3, as it transpired, as Vettel left his rivals - Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber included - trailing to the tune of the best part of a second following his initial run in Q3. They would scarcely get any closer later on.

A truly mesmerising performance, it should have been a RBR one-two, but a poor final lap from Webber opened the door to the indefatigable Lewis Hamilton, who belied all of McLaren-Mercedes' pre-season woes to nick a front row starting spot by just under a tenth of a second - and that, like Vettel, despite lacking KERS.

McLaren team-mate Jenson Button - the race-winner Down under for the past couple of years - made it a good day for the Woking-based outfit with fourth having grappled with set-up issues earlier on, with Ferrari duo Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa just fifth and eighth, the latter crowning a somewhat hapless session by bringing out the yellow flags after clipping the kerb and spinning through Turn One on his 'out' lap just after leaving the pits.

The remainder of the top ten were completed by the impressive Vitaly Petrov in sixth for Lotus Renault GP, Nico Rosberg seventh in the sole Mercedes Grand Prix to make Q3, the ever-spectacular Kamui Kobayashi ninth for Sauber - having featured right up at the sharp end all the way through and S?bastien Buemi sneaking into tenth in the lead Scuderia Toro Rosso.

Having missed out to Vettel by barely a tenth of a second in Albert Park qualifying this time last year, Webber took a quick glance at his team-mate's car once the session had drawn to a close - doubtless wondering just how that deficit has multiplied to a gaping nine tenths over the intervening twelve months. The home hero has just 24 hours to find the answer...

The biggest name casualty of Q2 was undoubtedly Michael Schumacher, who after struggling during Q1 and feeling the need to venture straight out on soft tyres, failed to bump Buemi by less than a tenth of a second when he lost crucial time towards the end of his final 'flyer'. The biggest drama? Adrian Sutil artfully rescuing a tyre-smoking 360-degree spin on the pit straight after opening up his rear wing and applying KERS at the same moment , doing well to keep his Force India out of the wall.

And the biggest disappointment? Undoubtedly Williams veteran Rubens Barrichello, who was already on the back foot following gearbox woes during FP3. As he prepares to begin his 307th grand prix tomorrow, the likeable Brazilian drifted to the left under braking for the notorious Turn Three, clipped the grass and spun his FW33 into the gravel trap, from where there was no way back. As he shook his head disconsolately inside the cockpit, 'Rubinho' knew he would be starting the race a lowly 17th.

Others to fail to progress beyond Q2 were Jaime Alguersuari in the second Toro Rosso, Sauber's young Mexican rookie Sergio P?rez - who had impressed mightily with the sixth-fastest time in Q1 following a hydraulics issue in final practice - Force India debutant Paul di Resta, reigning GP2 Series Champion Pastor Maldonado in the Williams and the luckless Sutil.

It was a toss-up between McLaren's pace and Nick Heidfeld's lack of it as to the greatest surprise of Q1, with Hamilton and Button grittily taking the fight to the hitherto dominant Red Bulls and 'Quick Nick' doing anything but living up to his moniker as he languished in a lowly 18th . To rub salt into the experienced German's wounds, team-mate Vitaly Petrov posted an excellent third-quickest time.

Ferrari - against all expectations - was left trailing, with Massa flirting with disaster by lingering in the drop zone towards the end of the session, only hauling himself clear on his very last lap and requiring the use of the softer compound tyres in order to do so.

Aside from the frustrated Heidfeld - whose cause was scarcely aided by an off-piste moment on his first run and traffic in the form of one of the hopeless HRTs on his last - others to struggle and bow out in Q1 were the Team Lotus duo of Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli, who are still unable to generate the right tyre temperature from the Pirellis on the T128.

Less surprisingly, Virgin pair Timo Glock and J?r?me D'Ambrosio - who has endured a torrid time of things on his grand prix debut thus far - missed the cut but snuck in under the 107 per cent rule, and even that marker was beyond HRT drivers Vitantonio Liuzzi and F1 returnee Narain Karthikeyan, more than two seconds shy of their closest rivals and with the Italian's F111 actually disintegrating around the track at one stage. It is now up to the discretion of the other teams as to whether Hispania is allowed to race. On the basis of Liuzzi and Karthikeyan's mobile chicane roles during qualifying, conventional wisdom says their rivals will not feel greatly disposed.

To see the qualifying times in full, click here



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