Lewis Hamilton halted Red Bull's run of qualifying dominance with a commanding run to pole position for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
It was a disappointing qualifying session for both Formula 1's title contenders, with Sebastian Vettel only third behind Red Bull teammate Mark Webber – but far better off than his Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso, who lines up only seventh.
McLaren driver Hamilton had been quickest in two of the three Yas Marina practice sessions, led Q1 and Q2, then produced a 1m40.630s early in Q3 to immediately put himself 0.4 second clear of his opposition. A second pole shot might have been faster still, but once it became clear that Hamilton's rivals had no answer to his pace, the Briton backed off and pitted.
Webber's 1m40.978s pushed Vettel off the front row. The points leader, hampered by a substantial loss of practice mileage, had pushed hard throughout qualifying – brushing a barrier in Q1, flying over curbs in Q2, and then stopping on track after his unsuccessful final flying lap in Q3.
Pastor Maldonado delivered the strong Williams qualifying result he had promised by grabbing fourth on the grid. Kimi Raikkonen improved to fifth for Lotus on his second Q3 run, with Jenson Button making similar gains to take sixth. Button had been as low as ninth at one stage, but a five-place and 0.6sec gap to McLaren teammate Hamilton will not please the 2009 champion.
Alonso held fourth after the early Q3 runs, only to be shoved down to a potentially costly seventh as others improved. His teammate Felipe Massa starts ninth, ahead of Romain Grosjean's Lotus.
Nico Rosberg made just one run in Q3 and initially held fifth, before falling to eighth when his rivals came out again. Rosberg's performance was a boost for Mercedes on what had looked like being another disappointing weekend. His teammate Michael Schumacher was only 14th, amid mutual apologies from team to driver over the radio.
Force India and Sauber could not reach the top 10 this time. Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez filled row six, with Paul di Resta 13th in his new chassis and Kamui Kobayashi six tenths down on Perez in 16th after locking up on his last lap.
Bruno Senna's run of tepid qualifying performances continued with 15th, 0.4sec slower than Williams teammate Maldonado in Q2.
Having appeared to conquer his qualifying problems in the summer, Jean-Eric Vergne notched up his second straight Q1 exit – and his eighth of the year – in Abu Dhabi. The recently re-signed Toro Rosso driver was on course to make the cut before spinning. He pushed on for another lap, but his abused tires had no more pace to offer. Vergne's teammate Daniel Ricciardo brought up the rear of the Q2 field in 17th.
Marussia pushed Caterham hard in the battle at the tail of the field. Although Heikki Kovalainen emerged in front again, he was only a tenth ahead of Charles Pic.
Vitaly Petrov was right in the fight in the second Caterham too, but Timo Glock was puzzled by a relative lack of speed from his Marussia as he beat only the back-row dwelling HRTs.
Pos Driver Team Time Gap
1. Lewis Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1m40.630s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault 1m40.978s + 0.348
3. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1m41.073s + 0.443
4. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault 1m41.226s + 0.596
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault 1m41.260s + 0.630
6. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes 1m41.290s + 0.660
7. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m41.582s + 0.952
8. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m41.603s + 0.973
9. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m41.723s + 1.093
10. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault 1m41.778s + 1.148
Q2 cut-off time: 1m41.907s Gap **
11. Nico Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1m42.019s + 1.118
12. Sergio Perez Sauber-Ferrari 1m42.084s + 1.183
13. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes 1m42.218s + 1.317
14. Michael Schumacher Mercedes 1m42.289s + 1.388
15. Bruno Senna Williams-Renault 1m42.330s + 1.429
16. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1m42.606s + 1.705
17. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m42.765s + 1.864
Q1 cut-off time: 1m43.582s Gap *
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1m44.058s + 2.561
19. Heikki Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 1m44.956s + 3.459
20. Charles Pic Marussia-Cosworth 1m45.089s + 3.592
21. Vitaly Petrov Caterham-Renault 1m45.151s + 3.654
22. Timo Glock Marussia-Cosworth 1m45.426s + 3.929
23. Pedro de la Rosa HRT-Cosworth 1m45.766s + 4.269
24. Narain Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 1m46.382s + 4.885
107% time: 1m48.601s
* Gap to quickest in Q1
** Gap to quickest in Q2