It looked momentarily like the Formula One season finale would start with a Red Bull front row, but Lewis Hamilton put an end to that with a stunning lap as the clock ran out in the final segment of qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, claiming the pole position by a margin of 0.667 seconds.
"Like I always say it was never easy but definitely as fun as it looked," said the 2008 World Champion. "Anything could have happened. Clearly we have been very competitive all weekend, and car has felt great. I didn't have doubts in my mind about what we have done it. It was easy to make mistakes but fortunately I didn't, so I'm happy with my lap."
It was not just one lap, though, as Hamilton dominated all three segments of the qualifying session, topping the timesheets by margins of some 0.5 and 0.3 seconds in the first two, low-fuel, qualifying segments. In the third session, with cars fueled for the start, the McLaren-Mercedes team chose to fuel Hamilton relatively light, and the British F1 prodigy completed the picture with his flying lap.
"With that lap for sure we should have thought about going longer, but I don't think we were too aggressive (on fuel strategy)," Hamilton admitted. "That lap felt like it was getting better and better!"
It was shock and disappointment for the two Red Bull-Renault drivers, though, as they claimed a lock on the front row only to see it evaporate with Hamilton's stoking lap with the chequered flag already out for the end of the session.
Mark Webber had laid claim to the pole first with a time of 1:41.726, only to have his teammate Sebastian Vettel slip past with a 1:41.615. Both were severely eclipsed, though, by Hamilton breaking though into the 1:40s with a time of 1:40.948.
"Both of us were surprised by the gap," said Vettel. "Lewis has been strong all weekend and McLaren are strong here. We saw in Q1 and Q2 that they were strong, so let's see the (fuel) strategies."
In addition to the possible race strategy differences, McLaren's KERS system certainly contributed an edge of three or four tenths to the lap time -- and only McLaren and Ferrari are running KERS this weekend. "The car is working well here but KERS button, which we have on steering wheel, is not working," joked Vettel at the press conference.
Webber, too, was shocked by the gap to Hamilton, but is hopeful that race strategy can make up much of that, enabling the team to fight for a season-ending victory.
"No doubt McLaren are quick, but I am surprised by Lewis's time," said Webber. "This is a reflection of the second half of the season, but it was a good job by the team and we want to finish on a high."
Rubens Barrichello, the runner-up in the world championship this year, again outqualified his Brawn-Mercedes teammate and freshly-crowned World Champion Jenson Button, with an edge of 0.106 seconds. Pending the release of the starting car weights by the FIA, it was a solid result for the Brazilian, and some consolation for the championship that slipped away from his grasp.
Brawn has generally shown good race pace this year, and from their fourth and fifth starting positions, Barrichello and Button are certainly going to be a threat at least to the podium positions, if not outright victory.
Jarno Trulli will start sixth for Toyota, just five thousandths slower than Button. The fourth row is all BMW Sauber, the team showing respectable late-season form, though far too late to finish in a respectable position in either the drivers' or manufacturers' championships. Robert Kubica, who is joining Renault in 2010, beat Nick Heidfeld to the seventh grid position by 0.351 seconds.
Nico Rosberg just squeaked through into the final top-ten qualifying segment, and will start ninth. His Williams-Toyota teammate -- the race is the final one for the combination, as Williams returns to the Cosworth fold next year -- could not make it through to the final segment. Kazuki Nakajima will start fourteenth.
While Sebastian Buemi made it through to Q3 for the third race in a row, but with a relatively high fuel load, he was unable to set a competitive time in the final segment. His Toro Rosso-Ferrari teammate, Jaime Alguersuari, finished fifteenth after missing critical track time, not being able to take part in the third practice session due to a mechanical problem.
Hamilton's teammate, Heikki Kovalainen, experienced his problems in Q2. Squeezing into the second segment after a spin in the first one, the Finn had to pull off midway through the segment with a gearbox problem. His thirteenth starting position may yet get worse, as a five-place penalty looms should the McLaren team be forced to replace the gearbox.
Kimi Raikkonen had no such problems, but was unable to squeeze enough speed out of his Ferrari to make it through to the final segment. Being eleventh, or the best of the also-rans, was scant consolation to the Finn, whose 2010 contract was recently bought out by Ferrari.
"That's all that I could get out of the car," he said. "If something unexpected happens in the race, some points could be possible, but even that will be hard work."
Raikkonen's teammate, Giancarlo Fisichella, who is substituting for the injured Felipe Massa, finished dead last, completing another disastrous qualifying outing for the Maranello squadron.
Fernando Alonso, who will be switching to Ferrari next season, struggled in his final qualifying session for Renault.
"Totally expected," the 2005 and 2006 World Champion told Spanish TV. "We are behind. We have probably the worst car on the grid."
Still, one must wonder how much better things will be for Alonso once he switches to Ferrari.
Tomorrow's race will start at 5 PM local time, and will be run, like today's qualifying session, in twilight, with floodlights providing illumination for the latter parts of the race.