Lewis Hamilton has qualified fastest for the opening race of the F1 season in Melbourne. Michael Schumacher was the best placed German in fourth place and defending champion Sebastian Vettel qualified sixth.
McLaren have taken first blood, though no points, in the 2012 Formula One season, locking out the front row for the curtain raiser in Albert Park, Melbourne. Lewis Hamilton will start the Australian Grand Prix from pole position, with his teammate Jenson Button lining up in second place.
The qualifying session, the first true indicator of the 2012 field's performance, suggested a more evenly-matched set of 24 cars - along with a few surprise packages. Lotus Renault returnee Romain Grosjean - who's sat on the sidelines for the past two seasons - qualified third-fastest in probably the biggest positive surprise of the day. However, Grosjean's higher-profile teammate, the returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, qualified a lowly 19th and was the first major scalp of the session.
Veteran Michael Schumacher was the fastest of the five German drivers in the field, securing fourth for Mercedes GP which at times looked like the team most likely to trouble McLaren at the top. Fellow Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg will still line up seventh on the grid - despite locking his brakes badly in his fastest lap, losing time.
World champion Sebastian Vettel, who had sounded a note of caution in the run-up to the session, had to settle for sixth place, less than one tenth of a second slower than Red Bull teammate Mark Webber who was racing in front of his home crowd. Vettel said in a television interview after qualifying that he felt he made a small mistake in his fastest lap, but added "today, I don't think anybody could have caught McLaren."
A shuffled pack
After a difficult pre-season, campaign, both Ferrari drivers failed to qualify in the top 10 positions, the first time this has happened since the team misjudged the weather conditions in a wet session at the 2010 Malaysian Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso will start 12th after a spin cut his session short, while Felipe Massa lines up in 16th.
Ferrari's loss was the gain of smaller outfits. Williams' Venezuelan sophomore Pastor Maldonado qualified an impressive eighth, German returnee (and ex-Williams driver) Nico Hülkenberg bagged ninth for his new team, Sahara Force India, markedly beating his teammate Paul di Resta. Daniel Ricciardo, driving his first race for Toro Rosso after a few debut outings in the woeful HRT last year, bagged 10th in what he probably considers to be his first "proper" F1 race weekend.
Timo Glock was the slowest German in the lowly Marussia car, but even he was optimistic after the session. Marussia had taken to the track with its 2012 challenger for the first time in Melbourne, having failed crash tests and not taken part in pre-season testing. Glock will start back in 21st place, but said that the car felt surprisingly good, all things considered.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Richard Connor