Japanese F3 champion Carlo van Dam claimed pole position for race one at the Macau Grand Prix just when it appeared too late for anyone to improve on Sam Bird's target time - and, when the Briton was subsequently penalised for missing the weighbridge, Keisuke Kunimoto made it an all TOM's front row.

Bird had become the first driver to break into the 1min 11s when Kei Cozzolino brought out the red flag by hitting the wall at Fisherman's with just over three-and-a-half minutes of the session remaining - enough for one flying lap. Taking full advantage of the TOM's team's position at the 'front' of the pit-lane, van Dam was able to get as clear as track as anyone as the entire field rejoined for one last shot at pole, and managed to squeeze out a time good enough to topple Bird.

When Stefano Coletti and Max Chilton then contrived to tangle and block part of the already tight track, anyone further back on the field who had managed to engineer a bit of space was out of luck, allowing van Dam to hold on to top spot.

"I was confident I would be able to improve," the Dutchman insisted, "On the second last run, I hit the guardrail at turn nine so, on the last few laps, my steering wasn't easy, but we did it. Although the race tomorrow is just another qualifying session, it is looking good so far."

Bird, running his regular 2008 Manor Motorsport mount, clung on to a front row spot for Saturday's 'qualification' race - which will set the definitive grid for Sunday's Grand Prix - while van Dam's team-mate Kunimoto benefited from a tow to vault up into third. However, it was all go awry for the Briton after the session.

Kunimoto had actually been sharing the front row with van Dam before Bird's improvement, but looked set to share row two with first qualifying pacesetter Edoardo Mortara, who was unable to squeeze as much out of his Signature Plus entry as those around him, until Bird was slapped with a three-place grid penalty for missing the weighbridge during the session.

His demotion to fifth not only promoted Kunimoto and Mortara to second and third, but also allowed Roberto Streit to move from row three to the outside of row two, while Bird slots in to the Brazilian's place alongside Roberto Merhi. Mortara had been the pacesetter throughout the opening day, and again topped the times in Friday practice, so had mixed feelings about his qualifying result.

"Third is a good position on the grid because only the final race counts but, if you start at the front, it is easier to win," he said.

Renger van der Zande, buoyed by the knowledge that he is to make his GP2 Series debut in Dubai next month, and Oliver Turvey both line up ahead of new British series champion Jaime Alguersuari, who shares row five with James Jakes. Jakes had been a late improver in the interrupted 45-minute session, moving into the top ten only in the closing minutes.

Among those to move in the opposite direction was Frenchman Jules Bianchi, the F3 Masters champion slipping back to 17th after causing the other red flag to halt the session. The ART driver hit the wall at R Bend with twelve minutes to go and ripped a wheel off his car, leaving him a sitting duck as others improved in the final moments.

Brendon Hartley headed Coletti and Chilton - who managed to be close to each other on the timesheets as well as the road - and Mika Maki, who bounced back from his Thursday crash and provisional DNQ to claim 14th after yo-yo'ing up and down the order during the session. The Finn moved back ahead of Marcus Ericsson and Kazuya Oshima - another improving after a Thursday meeting with the barriers - while Bianchi, Cozzolino, Walter Grubmuller and Franky Cheng rounded out the top 20.

While all bar the four slowest qualifiers improved on their Thursday times, it did not necessarily translate into better grid positions. Among those dropping back was James Winslow, the Australian champion finding nearly 1.5secs but losing five places after being 17th on day one. The Briton nevertheless qualified ahead of Euroseries racewinner Jon Lancaster and British series frontrunner Atte Mustonen amongst others.

The drivers will return to the track on Saturday for a ten-lap sprint to determine the grid for the 55th Macau Grand Prix, which takes place over 15 laps on Sunday.