Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button maintained McLaren's 2012 qualifying superiority as they repeated their Melbourne grid result and filled for the front row for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Michael Schumacher produced the best qualifying performance of his Formula 1 comeback as he took third for Mercedes, while world champion Sebastian Vettel chose to run the harder tire and will start fifth for Red Bull.
Just as had been the case in Australia, Hamilton's first pole shot in Q3 was sufficient to secure the top spot, as his 1m36.219s proved unbeatable. Button was second fastest after those runs, but was pushed back by Schumacher. Mercedes had left it late in Q2 and looked in danger of being eliminated before surging into the top 10, and then went for just one run in Q3.
That meant Schumacher was back in the pits by the time Button launched his retaliation, the McLaren edging the Mercedes off the front row by just 0.023sec. Schumacher beat his team-mate Nico Rosberg by five places and a little under 0.3sec.
The Q3 battle was incredibly close, with just 0.4sec covering pole to eighth place. Red Bull was not a pole threat again – Q1 pacesetter Mark Webber qualifying fourth, and Vettel choosing the harder Pirelli and setting the sixth-quickest time. They were split in the results by Kimi Raikkonen, but the Lotus – which was fastest in Q2 – will drop to 10th on the grid due to its five-place penalty for a gearbox change. Raikkonen's teammate Romain Grosjean was seventh quickest.
Against the team's own expectations, Fernando Alonso got Ferrari into Q3, although he could only manage to beat Sergio Perez's Sauber to ninth. Felipe Massa was closer to Alonso's pace than he had been for most of the Melbourne weekend but he missed the Q2 cut and was 12th.
Several of the underdog stars of Melbourne qualifying fell back into the midfield in Malaysia. Pastor Maldonado briefly got into the top 10 despite an early trip through the gravel in Q2, but he was pushed back to 11th as the Mercedes delivered their late laps. Maldonado will start two places ahead of Williams teammate Bruno Senna.
There were no Force Indias or Toro Rossos in Q3 this week, either. The closely matched Paul di Resta and Nico Hulkenberg claimed 14th and 16th for Force India, just 0.013sec apart and split by Daniel Ricciardo, whose Toro Rosso teammate Jean-Eric Vergne locked-up in Q1, flat-spotted a tire and consigned himself to 18th. Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber brought up the rear of the Q2 pack.
Both HRTs made the 107 percent cut this time, and will not even start last, as Heikki Kovalainen's penalty for passing under the safety car in Australia will drop the Caterham from 19th to last.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.219s
2. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m36.368s + 0.149
3. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m36.391s + 0.172
4. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m36.461s + 0.242
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m36.461s + 0.242
6. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m36.634s + 0.415
7. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m36.658s + 0.439
8. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m36.664s + 0.445
9. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m37.566s + 1.347
10. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m37.698s + 1.479
Q2 cut-off time: 1m37.477s Gap **
11. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m37.589s + 0.874
12. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m37.731s + 1.016
13. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m37.841s + 1.126
14. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m37.877s + 1.162
15. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m37.883s + 1.168
16. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m37.890s + 1.175
17. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m38.069s + 1.354
Q1 cut-off time: 1m38.437s Gap *
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m39.077s + 1.905
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m39.306s + 2.134
20. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m39.567s + 2.395
21. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m40.903s + 3.731
22. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m41.250s + 4.078
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m42.914s + 5.742
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m43.655s + 6.483
107% time: 1m43.974s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2