Honda's Jenson Button snatched pole position from the Renaults in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix in the hectic last minute battle of the session. Button posted a best time of 1:25.229 and Giancarlo Fisichella and Fernando Alonso were just a few tenths behind in second and third respectively.
The conditions were improved from the morning session; the weather was dry, if a little windy, and the track temperature was in the high twenties. There was a possibility of further rain showers but for the start of the session it was sunny. The Toro Rossos of Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi were quick to go out and Super Aguri drivers Yuji Ide and Takuma Sato.
Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli got their Toyotas out early and the MF1s of Tiago Monteiro and Christijan Albers followed suit. In the first couple of minutes nearly half the pack was on track, Christian Klien's Red Bull joining the others. Liuzzi clocked the first time, 1:31.949, and drivers started trading the top spot.
Speed took his turn, with Ralf and Trulli behind, and meanwhile McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen, Button and the Red Bull of David Coulthard joined the action. Ide had an off track moment and Liuzzi returned to the top with teammate Speed and Albers following behind. Klien, Ralf and Trulli made up the top six.
Ide then had a sideways moment and appeared to stall, the Super Aguri's nose on the grass but the rest of the car on track. The session was red flagged, with still only 10 drivers on the time sheet. Liuzzi was top with a 1:30.208, followed by Klien and Speed. The track went green a few minutes later and McLaren's Juan Pablo Montoya was first out.
The Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Felipe Massa were next, then the Williams pair of Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber. Montoya took the top spot and Alonso's Renault slotted into second but both were demoted by Fisichella. Ralf took third and Rosberg fourth, with BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld fifth.
Trulli was next to the top and was subsequently demoted by Raikkonen, who in turn fell to Montoya. The first 15 minutes came to an end and Barrichello was the most notable driver to be dropped. The Brazilian was held up by Ide on his last flyer and didn't make the grade -- presumably Honda will have words with Super Aguri about that.
Behind Barrichello, who was 17th, the others to drop out were Albers, Speed, Monteiro, Sato and Ide. Massa narrowly missed the fall out zone, just managing to get through in the final seconds. Montoya remained at the top with a best time of 1:27.079, then Raikkonen second and Webber third. The times were cleared ready for the next 15 minute session.
The BMWs were out first when the action resumed along with the Toyotas and they traded fastest times with Trulli holding sway for a while. Raikkonen took over, then Alonso and Fisichella posted third. Montoya moved into second but Massa went off track and bumped the barriers at turn 11 and bought out the red flag again.
Massa had clipped the kerb and lost the back end of the car; the Ferrari sustained some damaged and it was session over for the Brazilian. Alonso's 1:28.569 held the top spot then came Montoya and Raikkonen, with Fisichella, Trulli and Heidfeld making up the top six. Webber and Button were at the bottom of the list.
At the restart the remaining cars were quickly back out on track, with under five minutes to go. Local hero Webber got himself up to third but lost the place to Heidfeld and a few spots of rain started to fall. There was little change in the top positions and at the end of the second session Michael led the list of the next six to be dropped.
Even if he hadn't spun it seemed unlikely, judging by Michael's time, that Massa would have made the top 10 anyway -- Ferrari did not look on the pace in this qualifying. Behind Michael, who was 11th, came Coulthard, Liuzzi, Klien and Rosberg. Massa was 16th in the end, the last of the second group of six to be dropped.
So, with the times cleared for the final 20 minute session and light rain falling, Fisichella led the remaining 10 cars out with race fuel on board. The now familiar task of burning off fuel occupied the initial laps, although with overtaking a difficult task at Albert Park some might be running light for a good grid spot.
Heidfeld and Webber tried intermediates but found the tyres not quick enough and switched to dries -- the rain shower had quickly passed and the track was not wet. Button moved up to second on the time sheet behind Alonso and the BMWs to third and fourth, Heidfeld leading Villeneuve. Raikkonen and Webber made up the top six.
Ralf then improved to fourth but teammate Trulli suffered a gearbox problem at the end of the middle session and couldn't take part in the last one. Raikkonen moved into second and Webber had a bit of a trip across the grass. Montoya, who hadn't done many laps, took over at the top and was almost a second quicker than Alonso.
In the last five minutes most drivers ducked into the pits for fresh tyres and Alonso answered Montoya to go fastest but Button followed on and went quicker still, 1:25.229. Fisichella improved to second and Montoya had a spin but kept going but it was time up and nobody could beat Button, who will start Sunday's race from pole position.
A deserved result for Button, who delivered a good lap at the right time. "The whole day's been pretty manic with the weather but we were a little bit off the pace when qualifying started," he said. "We were really struggling for grip so to finally get this pole position is fantastic and it shows how keeping relaxed -- the whole team -- and very very focused that we were able to get the pole position."
However, Button will have the fast starting Renaults to deal with on Sunday, with Fisichella alongside in second and Alonso third. "On the second lap we were quicker because there was better grip from the tyres but unfortunately I made a couple of mistakes in the first part of the circuit but apart from that I'm really happy and I'm looking forward to tomorrow," Fisichella commented.
Alonso was reasonably satisfied: "I am happy because in the last race I was seventh, so this is my best qualifying of the year," the Spaniard said. "Hopefully, I can fight for the win, but it is true that I lost nearly half a second in the last sector because of traffic... but these things happen to everybody and so it is better to be third than further back."
The McLarens followed on, Raikkonen leading Montoya but it was actually Montoya who looked more on the pace and he might have gained pole if not for his late spin. "I came into Turn Five a bit too aggressively, hit the kerb and lost it, and that was it," the Colombian explained.
It was disappointing for Trulli to not be able to go out in the last session as Toyota looked competitive but at least both cars were in the top ten, Ralf sixth. Webber did a fair job to post eighth but had perhaps expected a little more. Both BMWs made the top ten but Villeneuve will have to drop 10 places from ninth due to his engine change.
Of those behind, Ferrari was the most disappointing. Has the change of front wing made such a difference or was it something else? Whatever the case Michael and Massa will have a tough job on their hands tomorrow. Red Bull will no doubt be unhappy to have both cars outside the top 10 and Rosberg did not really shine, his Williams down in 15th.
Can Button take Honda's maiden win on Sunday? That's the big question. Not to detract from his efforts in qualifying, but Renault and McLaren look stronger than Honda and could likely outdo Button in the race. We will see. Final top eight classification: Button, Fisichella, Alonso, Raikkonen, Montoya, R. Schumacher, Webber, Heidfeld.