Germany’s Sebastian Vettel claimed pole position for Sunday’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Vettel, who finished the 2009 campaign by winning two of the final three races, grabbed the sixth pole of his 44-race career, leaving the returning Michael Schumacher down in seventh place.
The Red Bull Racing star put in a stunning hot lap in the closing 10-minute qualifying session at the Sakhir circuit to edge out the Ferrari pair of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso into second and third, with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton fourth.
The 22-year-old Vettel was brilliant throughout all three sessions, finishing second in the opening 20 minutes, before topping the middle 15-minute stint and then coming out on top at the end.
Vettel ultimately finished with a lap of one minute 54.101 seconds, with Massa 0.141secs adrift and Alonso a further 0.4secs down.
Hamilton won his first battle of the Britons with team-mate Jenson Button at McLaren as the world champion struggled during the course of the afternoon and will start eighth directly behind seven-times champion Schumacher.
The 41-year-old, on his comeback after three and a half years in retirement, was again bettered by his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, as he was in all three practice sessions.
Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber starts sixth, with Robert Kubica in his Renault ninth behind Button, and Force India’s Adrian Sutil a fine 10th.
In the dying moments of Q2, Button managed to scrape his way into the top 10, edging out his Brawn team-mate from last season in Rubens Barrichello, now with Williams, by 0.162secs.
Behind the veteran Brazilian will be Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi and the second Williams of promising German rookie Nico Hulkenberg, who was only half-a-second down on Barrichello.
The Saubers of Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi will start 14th and 16th, with Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi splitting the Spanish and Japanese drivers.
On his debut, Renault’s Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov knows the task he now faces after seeing team-mate Kubica’s performance as he will start 17th, finishing a yawning 1.7secs behind the Pole at the end of the session.
It was no great surprise to see the three new teams occupying the bottom six positions come the conclusion to the initial 20-minute session.
And it was Virgin who were best of the newcomers thanks to Timo Glock, and that after seeing a wheel roll off his car in final practice earlier today due to a loose nut.
The German will start 19th, edging the Lotus Racing pair of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen into 20th and 21st places, with just 0.6secs separating the trio.
Glock’s team-mate Lucas di Grassi was a further 0.2secs adrift, leaving Hispania Racing’s Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok bringing up the rear of the now 24-strong grid.
Brazilian Senna finished nearly three seconds behind di Grassi, whilst Chandhok was a further 1.9secs further adrift, and 10.3secs seconds down on the fastest man in the initial session, Alonso.
In retrospect, it was not a bad effort from the second Indian due to race in F1 after he failed to complete a single lap in any of the practice sessions following a range of problems with his car.
With seven drivers dropping out after Q1, the unlucky man to wind up joining the new boys was Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari, even though the young Spaniard was 2.7secs faster than Glock.
Vettel could not hide a big grin after claiming pole as he said: “It’s a big surprise.
“In winter testing no-one really knew where they were, although it was clear we were pretty strong, but close to each other.
“Yesterday wasn’t as good as we hoped, so it was a long night for the mechanics, but everyone was keen this morning to push.
“I knew we had a great car, but you have to get it together, so I’m very happy to be on pole. It’s a very nice feeling.”
The difference this year is the drivers in the top 10 will have to start on the same tyres in which they qualified late on, and with the heavy fuel tanks, it is a venture into the unknown.
“We all don’t know what is going to happen. It could be exciting or it could be very boring,” added Vettel.
“It’s a difficult situation to be in. The first part of the race is crucial because you need to take care of the tyres, so no-one really knows.”
Also surprising was Massa finishing ahead of Alonso as the double world champion had been the better of the two throughout practice.
So for a driver who required life-saving surgery last season, his second place on the grid was a significant step.
“It’s definitely great to be back and being competitive. I feel really happy to be back after such a difficult time,” said Massa.
“After watching the races on television, it is much better to be sat in the car, and after what happened last season, this is a good start for the team. It’s great for the guys.
“I feel really positive starting from second, but Red Bull and some other teams are strong, so let’s wait and see, but I’m really optimistic.”
Alonso seemed relatively happy enough with his third on his debut for Ferrari, commenting: “Everything has been great so far.
“We’re competitive in all conditions, and to be second and third is a great achievement from everybody in the factory in Maranello.
“They’ve been flat out since November day and night, so this is a real achievement. Two cars in the top three shows we have a very good car.”