Mark Webber continued Red Bull's run of pole positions with a brilliant gamble on intermediate tires in a dramatic, rain-interrupted, Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying session. Mercedes' Nico Rosberg will join Webber on the front row, with Sebastian Vettel third in the second Red Bull. Both McLarens and both Ferraris were caught out by the weather and will start outside the top 16.
Rain began just before the session, leaving the track initially sodden in places, slippery in others, but also with some virtually dry sections. Expecting conditions to get better rather than worse, all of the top four teams' drivers bar Sebastian Vettel waited in the pits for the first eight minutes. It was the wrong decision, as the rain quickly intensified. Webber and the Mercedes got adequate laps completed just in time, as did Button – only to spin into the Turn 6 gravel on his next lap, leaving the World Champion 17th on the grid, as he would be unable to run in Q2 despite qualifying for it.
Hamilton spun at the last corner on his first run and the Ferraris' initial efforts were too slow, leaving all three outside the Q2 cut. They kept pushing – Alonso having a triple spin out of Turn 8 and Massa sliding through the gravel – but were all two to four tenths adrift of the required time and will line up in 19th to 21st places.
While Q2 was uneventful by comparison, Q3 was then red-flagged before any of the drivers had completed a flying lap as the heavens opened again. The officials waited 15 minutes to let the storm pass before resuming for a final seven minute pole shootout.
Force India's Adrian Sutil set the early pace, but then track conditions began to come to Webber – the only man on intermediates. He jumped to provisional pole, and then on his third and final lap of Q3 moved 1.3sec clear of his wet-shod competition. Rosberg denied Red Bull another front row sweep by taking second ahead of Vettel, with Sutil pushed back to fourth.
Williams' rookie Nico Hulkenberg was a front-runner throughout the session and took a brilliant fifth, ahead of Renault's Robert Kubica, who had topped Q1.
Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher are on row four in the second Williams and Mercedes, ahead of Kamui Kobayashi – who gave Sauber its first top-10 start of 2010 – and Force India's Tonio Liuzzi.
The big names' mistakes allowed Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen and Virgin's Timo Glock to reach Q2 for the first time in their teams' history – Kovalainen pipping his teammate Jarno Trulli to 17th in Q1 by just 0.009sec. Kovalainen and Glock will share row eight tomorrow.
There were no wet weather heroics for Toro Rosso today, Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari filling row seven. Renault's Vitaly Petrov only just missed out on a Q3 spot and will start 11th, ahead of Pedro de la Rosa, who was a second off his Sauber teammate Kobayashi's Q2 pace.
Karun Chandhok outqualified Hispania teammate Bruno Senna for the first time as the Brazilian spun off early in Q1. Both beat Lucas di Grassi, who only joined Q1 for the saturated closing minutes as post-practice work on his Virgin over-ran.
For a list of all today's stories from qualifying, click here.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:51.886 1:48.210 1:49.327
2. Rosberg Mercedes 1:52.560 1:47.417 1:50.673
3. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:47.632 1:46.828 1:50.789
4. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:49.479 1:47.085 1:50.914
5. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:49.664 1:47.346 1:51.001
6. Kubica Renault 1:46.283 1:46.951 1:51.051
7. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:50.301 1:48.371 1:51.511
8. Schumacher Mercedes 1:52.239 1:48.400 1:51.717
9. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:48.467 1:47.792 1:51.767
10. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:49.922 1:48.238 1:52.254
11. Petrov Renault 1:47.952 1:48.760
12. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:47.153 1:48.771
13. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.945 1:49.207
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.655 1:49.464
15. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.875 1:52.270
16. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.398 1:52.520
17. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:52.211
18. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.884
19. Alonso Ferrari 1:53.044
20. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:53.050
21. Massa Ferrari 1:53.283
22. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 1:56.299
23. Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:57.269
24. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.977