Lewis Hamilton has taken a huge step towards winning the 2007 Formula 1 World Championship title a race earlier than planned when he poached pole position from under the nose of Ferrari - and McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso - in Shanghai.

A genuinely surprising sixth pole position of the season having allowed Ferrari to set the pace in practice and throughout the qualifying phases, a superb final lap was enough to see the young Brit undercut Kimi Raikkonen by a tenth, but most crucially put two cars between himself and Alonso.

Needing just one point less than Alonso this weekend to ensure that he makes history by becoming the first rookie to win the Formula 1 title, it remains to be seen whether Hamilton has been somewhat artificially moved to the front to give him the upper hand over the Spaniard. Nevertheless, he is now in an ideal position to capitalise.

Fastest in the first two sectors, Hamilton proved the agility of his McLaren remains its strength through the twisty start to the lap, holding it together in the quicker final sector to ensure that he would be the only driver in the shootout to break the 1min 36secs magic marker.

For much of the time it looked as though pole position, and indeed the front row, would be an all-Ferrari affair, with Raikkonen looking strong in every session leading up to the crucial one, while Massa was providing adequate support in second.

However, the Finn, who remains in a distant title hunt, was left with a disappointed second, with Massa in third, the Brazilian now in a curious position if he is to help his team-mate keep the championship alive until Interlagos. At the same time though, Ferrari are hinting they could be expecting a wet grand prix, which could go some way to explaining the slight drop of form in the shootout.

Alonso meanwhile will start fourth after a lacklustre final lap that placed him some six tenths behind Hamilton. Now seeming to face a struggle if he is to retain his title, Alonso must finish ahead of his team-mate to keep the fans guessing, but it is unlikely it will be any easier from the second row.

Behind the headline-grabbers, those behind were also doing a good job of sharing their moment in the spotlight, not least David Coulthard, who produced his finest qualifying performance for more than two years with a superb series of laps that placed him well inside the top ten in all three knockout phases.

Red Bull Racing's joy was further compounded by Mark Webber's seventh place on the grid and with Williams struggling further down the field, the team look well placed to possibly usurp the British team for fourth place in the constructor standings this weekend.

They were separated on the grid by Ralf Schumacher, the German looking confident on the weekend he announced he will be leaving Toyota at the end of this year.

BMW were unusually disappointing in eighth and ninth, but having proved comfortably fifth and sixth quickest throughout the weekend so far, speculation suggests that Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica could be taking a risk on an alternative set-up with regards to the weather...

Jenson Button meanwhile made it three British drivers in the top ten for the first time this season after another sterling performance for Honda, even if he could not make his strong position count in the shootout when he finished some eight tenth slower than ninth place Kubica.

Nonetheless, with both of the Red Bulls and a Honda making the top ten, some more fancied names failed to make the cut in a surprising first two knockout sessions that proved the mid-field is closer here than it has been at any time this season.

Crucially for the drivers, the circuit was able to improve as the session improved, prompting the usual flurry of activity in the final seconds that made getting a strong time as dependant on good timing as it did a clean lap.

Indeed, not much separated those in the lower end of the top ten down to 16th place, but while Button's final lap was enough to sneak him into the shootout, it was also enough to deny the Scuderia Toro Rossos from making it two top ten starts in a row.

Nonetheless, they will at least be heartened to have produced their best ever combined effort, with Vitantonio Liuzzi and Sebastian Vettel - who has since had his ten-place grid penalty annulled - securing 11th and 12th positions on the grid. Given the pressure they are under regarding beating Spyker in the constructor standings, the duo can do the job from that position.

Other losers were traditional strong qualifiers Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen and Nico Rosberg, the latter driver in particular struggling with a car that he claims was proving too unpredictable.

The first time in six races the Williams driver has not made the top ten shootout, 16th will be Rosberg's lowest starting position of the season, bar the British Grand Prix.

Although he has out-qualified Schumacher several times this year, Trulli will be Toyota's second best from 13th place, while Kovalainen will start 14th after throwing away any chances of a top ten start with an off on the final corner of his best lap. Anthony Davidson meanwhile was yet again able to get the better of Aguri team-mate Takuma Sato in a decent 15th place.

Indeed, Sato was one of the drivers to be bringing up the rear, but while his presence, alongside Adrian Sutil and Sakon Yamamoto in the Spyker's in 20th, 21st and 22nd was not so much of a surprise, together with Rubens Barrichello and Alex Wurz, the veteran duo yet again struggling with the knockout formula, the identity of the other reject was certainly a surprise.

Later compounded by Kovalainen's effort, Renault's dismal day was started with Giancarlo Fisichella could not make the second session for the first time in his career. Although rumours suggest he - and the set-up on his car - is hoping for another wet race, the Italian was at least expected to get further than he did.

You can bet who will be doing their rain dance tonight...

 

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