Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella claimed pole position in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix, in what was another entertaining session with the new format. Just over a tenth behind Fisichella was the Honda of Jenson Button and he will line up alongside on the front row. Williams' rising star Nico Rosberg put in a strong challenge at the end but had to settle for third.
Ferrari's Michael Schumacher and Honda's Rubens Barrichello both had engine changes before qualifying. Their teams suspected possible problems and took precautionary measures. Schumacher has a fresh engine in his race car while Barrichello swapped to the spare car, complete with new engine.
They join Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Red Bull's David Coulthard in having to take the 10 place grid demotion penalty. Both had to change their engines after Bahrain; Coulthard's Ferrari engine failed just after the chequered flag and Massa has actually had two new units since Sakhir.
Track temperature was edging towards 50 degrees as the MF1s of Christijan Albers and Tiago Monteiro were quickly in action, with the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Yuji Ide. Coulthard was also out early and it only took a couple of minutes for half the grid to get out on track. Albers clocked the first time but didn't stay at P1 for long.
Monteiro took over and the two Super Aguris went behind the MF1 pair. Coulthard was next to the top while others were still warming up and his teammate Christian Klien took second. Fisichella and Fernando Alonso's Renaults replaced the Red Bull duo and the Toyota of Ralf Schumacher subsequently replaced Fisichella.
Barrichello and Toro Rosso's Scott Speed made the top six in the first seven minutes but there were still quite a few cars to find the time sheet. The second Toyota of Jarno Trulli was in the top 10, as was the Toro Rosso of Tonio Liuzzi. Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren went to the top, followed by Button into second.
Michael went through in seventh and it got busy in the last five minutes. Williams' Nico Rosberg made the grade and Montoya shot to the top to make it a McLaren one-two. Webber went a couple of places better than teammate Rosberg and the BMW Saubers of Nick Heidfeld and Jacques Villeneuve were late comers to the time sheet.
Massa, who many thought would not bother to go out in qualifying, did make a time and posted fourth. Coulthard and Klien returned to the top 10 but for the bottom six on the time sheet it was qualifying over after the first 15 minute session. Montoya was quickest a the end with a time of 1:34.536.
This who lost out, from 17th position down, were the Toro Rossos of Speed and Liuzzi, followed by the MF1s of Albers and Monteiro then the Super Aguris of Sato and Ide. After a five minute break the remaining cars had their previous times cleared ready for the next 15 minute session.
Massa sat on the pit wall and didn't look like he was going to try another run and Villeneuve was out first. The rest duly started following along and Klien and Coulthard took their turns at the top, followed by Ralf. However, Ralf then had what looked like an engine failure on the main straight. Yet another grid penalty, it seems.
Montoya took over at the top and Raikkonen was next, while the Renaults and BMWs were in the top 10. Michael made third and Rosberg was doing another good job as he clocked second. Webber got the advantage on his young teammate and went to the top but was immediately demoted by Button.
Time was running out and quite a few drivers went out for a final attack. The order of the top 10 had been changing quite rapidly and in the final moments Alonso and Fisichella nipped back into the safe zone, along with Klien. Button was the quickest man at the end of the session, 1:33.527.
Massa didn't bother to make a second run and the others who missed the final shootout were, from 11th, Coulthard's Red Bull, Barrichello Honda, Trulli's Toyota and the two BMW's of Villeneuve and Heidfeld. Ralf actually made the top 10 but due to his engine failure he couldn't go out for another try.
With previous times once again cleared, the remaining runners had the final 20 minute session to fight for pole with race fuel on board. As we saw in Bahrain, there was a fair amount of track activity as the drivers burned off fuel to make the cars lighter for a quick lap or two at the end.
Fisichella and Alonso were at the top of the times early on, followed by Montoya and Raikkonen. Button and Michael took their turns, then Rosberg and Webber in quick formation but they were not yet serious attempts at lap times. Klien seemed to have decided to conserve fuel and tyres for the race and take a lower grid spot as he was not doing much.
Webber had a brief trip over the grass but continued and there was not much to comment on until time began to dwindle away. Drivers started spooling through the pits for tyre changes and Button was first to clock a quicker time, 1:34.504. Rosberg took second and Fisichella third but the Italian then lost it to Michael.
In the last few minutes Montoya posted third then Webber took it. Raikkonen was fifth and Fisichella was on a very hot lap -- he went fastest, 1:33.840. Button was on his way but couldn't take the top spot off the Renault and Fisichella secured his third career pole position.
"This is the best pole I have had so far," he said. "Last year it was thanks to the rain, but today, everybody was up there and fighting hard for it. The engineers made some changes to the car overnight that really improved the balance, and from the first run this morning, I could feel we had the pace to fight for the first two rows."
"After that, it was a question of doing the best possible job in the qualifying session, and performing to the maximum at the right time. We did it, and tomorrow, I will only be thinking about the win."
Different race strategies surely played their parts and it looks likely we'll see some interesting action develop in Sunday's event. Fisichella and Button will share the front row and Rosberg showed his worth in third. Williams looked quite promising, with Webber in fifth.
"The team has done a fantastic job to get us on the front row of the grid and I have to thank them for that," Button commented. "Things were looking a lot less positive yesterday when we were really struggling to find a good set-up. A lot of hard work was done overnight and tomorrow looks promising, but let's wait and see."
For only his second event, Rosberg was impressive. "I am really pleased to be starting from the second row for tomorrow as it is important for me to make a good first impression," he said. "The team has worked well and it is very good to have this opportunity to drive a great combination of chassis, engine and tyres and start so far up the grid."
Michael qualified fourth but will drop due to his penalty. Montoya and Raikkonen were sixth and seventh respectively and McLaren seemed fairly satisfied with that. Alonso was some way off Fisichella's time in eighth and suffered a fuel rig problem that apparently disturbed his efforts.
Klien settled for ninth -- which begs the strategy question -- but will move up one due to Michael's penalty, as will others. There is some uncertainty about exactly where quite a few drivers will be on the grid due to so many penalties. An official grid line up is not expected until Sunday morning.
Four engine changes for Ferrari-powered drivers since Bahrain -- two for Massa, one each for Michael and Coulthard -- has to raise a bit of a question mark over Ferrari's reliability in the race. Jean Todt described it as going through a "difficult moment" with the engines. Will they have any "moments" on Sunday?
Barrichello's Honda career hasn't exactly started on the right foot and Ralf's engine failure was disappointing after Toyota looked improved this weekend. After all the penalties and engine problems so far at Sepang, just about anything could happen in the race.
The last 20 minute session of the format remains a little disappointing compared to the first two and there's talk that it might be changed a little. But all in all, the new qualifying has generally met with approval. Final top eight classification: Fisichella, Button, Rosberg, M. Schumacher, Webber, Montoya, Raikkonen, Alonso.