The Englishman will be joined on the front row of the grid by his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button, with theWokingsquad opening the season with two consecutive front row lockouts for the first time since 2000.
Having shown a significant speed advantage in the season opening race atMelbournethe pace of McLaren was always going to be one of the talking points of this weekend. WithMelbourneoffering a very unique challenge it was thought that Sepang would give a much better indication of what to expect in the coming months.
For their rivals this session will have marked another shot across the bows with Hamilton and Button once again showing a turn of speed that their rivals were not capable of matching.
Hamiltonset the pace, as in Australia, with an early effort in Q3 and the former world champion was clearly delighted with his effort:
“On my quickest lap in Q3, I lost a little time in the final corner- maybe a tenth and a half – so it’s massively encouraging to still be in the position I’m in,” commented Hamilton after the session. “It’s great for the team to have another one-two, too: that’s a huge achievement from everybody, but we just need to make sure we keep pushing because the guys behind us won’t give up.”
With Hamilton having been outshone by Button in the opening race of the year following a similar qualifying performance it is clear that tomorrows race will play a pivotal role in the intra team battle of McLaren.
For Hamilton it’s clear just how much of his focus has been on overcoming Button in race trim with the pole sitter continuing to say:
“Anyway, the key will be to look after your tyres in the race – they’ll have a tough time, especially on 150kg of fuel,” said Hamilton. “But we’ve hopefully got a car that has better race pace than it does qualifying pace. It’s been a good weekend for the team so far, but we’ll keep pushing massively for another strong result tomorrow.”
Michael Schumacher continued his impressive start to the season with the seven times world champion qualifying in third. The session marked the high point of his qualifying efforts since returning to F1 in 2010 and the German was clearly delighted with the qualifying session: “It felt nice being in the qualifying press conference for the first time in over five years!”
In Melbourne the Mercedes seemed unable to match the pace of McLaren in race trim but with rain a distinct possibility during tomorrows race this race could present Schumacher with a great opportunity of standing on the rostrum.
Having been outclassed by his teammate Nico Rosberg in the last two years it is surely encouraging for Schumacher to have outqualified his compatriot once again. Rosberg will lineup eighth on the grid after a disappointing session that saw him lock up at the first corner and damage his tyres.
Having to start on that set is sure to compound his poor qualifying effort. His team principal, Ross Brawn, will need to use his legendary tactical acumen tomorrow to help Rosberg move up the field but it was clear that Brawn thought his driver had a much more competitive car at his disposal than what transpired in the session:
“The competition is incredibly close,” said Brawn. “With only tenths separating the top eight and that was enough to push Nico further down than he should have been after he flat-spotted his front tyre at turn one. However he is still in a good position and both drivers should be able to have a strong race.”
The battle in Q3 was exceptionally close and with Rosberg just 0.4s off the pole it was clear that any mistake would be heavily punished. Even with so much competition Red Bull was never a serious threat for pole position with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel set to line up fourth and fifth on tomorrow’s grid. The team has struggled to match the one lap pace of McLaren so far in 2012 but their race pace inMelbournewas more impressive.
Starting on hard compound rubber could offer Vettel a strategic advantage tomorrow but it was clear that both drivers have been happier to use the prime tyre because they have not been able to get the option rubber to work effectively for them.
The world champions benefited from Kimi Raikkonen needing a gearbox change and the Finn being penalised five grid positions having set the fifth fastest time of the session.
With team principal, Christian Horner, speaking after the session it was clear just how different this season could be for the squad:
“Fourth and fifth on the grid after Kimi’s penalty is probably what we expected going into qualifying today,” said the Englishman. “The McLarens have looked very strong all weekend. We elected to take a different approach with both drivers tomorrow, with Mark qualifying on the softer tyre and Sebastian on the harder tyre. Our long run pace has been encouraging throughout the weekend, so hopefully we can have a strong race tomorrow and put on a good show.”
Raikkonen and Grosjean’s qualifying efforts, in setting the fifth and seventh fastest times, once again showed how much improvement the Lotus has made over the winter. The team never got to show their race pace inAustraliabecause of Grosjean’s accident and Raikkonen being held up in traffic throughout. The consistency of Raikkonen inMelbournehowever indicated that they could have very strong race pace this weekend.
Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez rounded out the leading qualifiers with Alonso’s Ferrari teammate, Felipe Massa, once again failing to make it into the final qualifying shootout. The Brazilian has been under tremendous pressure from the Italian media in the run up to this weekend’s race but he had a decent qualifying session that should buoy his confidence to some extent ahead of the race.