It's been a fight between Ferrari and McLaren so far this weekend in Malaysia and it was Felipe Massa who triumphed in qualifying to claim pole position. The Ferrari man set a best time of 1:35.043 in a last minute shoot-out, with McLaren's Fernando Alonso just over two and a half tenths behind for second. Kimi Raikkonen put his Ferrari third and Lewis Hamilton shone again to take the fourth grid slot for McLaren.
It was another hot day at the Sepang circuit with the track temperature around 50 degrees at the start of the first 15 minute qualifying session. However, there was a threat of possible rain with a few clouds gathering. The Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli led out, quickly followed by several others.
The Toro Rossos of Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi, the Super Aguris of Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson and the Hondas of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were next on the track. It seemed going out in formation was the in thing as the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen and the McLarens of Hamilton and Alonso followed on.
Massa and Raikkonen's Ferraris were next and the times started reeling through, Trulli, Schumacher and Nico Rosberg's Williams all taking a turn. Speed took the second spot and Button fourth, while the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and David Coulthard made their way out. Liuzzi went quickest and Coulthard posted third on his first effort.
Raikkonen's 1:35.138 was next to the top, with teammate Massa a couple of tenths behind. Webber clocked third then Hamilton shaved a tenth off Raikkonen's time. Alonso had a scorching middle sector and posted 1:34.942 to narrowly outdo Hamilton, making it a McLaren one-two, followed by the Ferraris.
Unsurprisingly the Spykers of Adrian Sutil and Christijan Albers were in the drop zone and with five minutes to go only Barrichello, in the spare car due to a gearbox problem in his race car, and the BMW Saubers of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica had yet to set a time. Button put in a good effort for sixth and in the last couple of minutes Heidfeld and Kubica posted fifth and fourth respectively.
There was the usual mad rush at the end but for some there wasn't enough time left. The Renaults just squeezed through but Speed was the first of the six to be dropped, in 17th. Then came Davidson, Barrichello, Alex Wurz, who had a gearbox gremlin on his Williams, and the Spykers of Albers and Sutil in 21st and 22nd.
Alonso remained fastest from Hamilton and Raikkonen in second and third respectively. Red Bull and Toyota each got both cars through, as did Renault but the French squad did seem to be struggling a bit. Barrichello had problems but Button did a good job to get himself into the top 10.
The times were cleared and the second 15 minute session got under way -- with a hint of rain? There was an awful lot of quick activity and it did seem that a few spots of rain were in the air. Alonso was on it straight away and clocked the fastest lap of the weekend so far, 1:34.057. Hamilton posted second and Raikkonen third.
Massa took over second, about four tenths off Alonso, and the BMWs and Toyotas were in the top 10 early on. Just about everyone was on the softer compound tyre and although the rain hadn't materialized it was still a possibility. There was a lull in activity as the teams tried to second-guess the weather, the track empty for a while.
Rosberg went back out with five minutes to go and it seemed that the rest were waiting to see if he would improve. He did but only marginally and he remained eighth. In the final two minutes some others went out for a last attempt but the top five of McLarens, Ferraris and Kubica's BMW apparently felt they had done enough and didn't move.
Toyota and Rosberg again impressed and went through, but Renault was a disappointment with neither Kovalainen nor Fisichella making it. They just missed out in 11th and 12th respectively, followed by Coulthard, Sato, Button and Liuzzi. Webber was notable, ninth for Red Bull, and Heidfeld managed to improve one place ahead of Kubica for fifth.
So, the final session got underway for pole position. Once again everyone was quickly out but the usual fuel-burning had to be done before any serious lap times were aimed for. Alonso and Hamilton were early leaders, Alonso really charging the McLaren round even with his race fuel load on board.
Massa was quickly on the reigning champion's rear wing, just a tenth down, and Raikkonen a similar gap behind. Rosberg was early in for a tyre change ready for a hot lap and with about eight minutes remaining the rest began to follow suit. Rosberg posted fifth but there was a lot of traffic out there, and still the clouds were threatening.
Webber clocked fourth and Raikkonen was flying, he, Alonso and Massa all on a quick lap together. Their first sectors were almost identical but it was Alonso that got the best of it, 1:35.682, with Massa a couple of tenths off and Raikkonen and Hamilton behind. Heidfeld and Kubica were fifth and sixth and there was just enough time to put another lap in.
There was a mad rush to the pits and really it wasn't possible to guess who was going to come out on top between Ferrari and McLaren. Rosberg was grimly hanging on, clocking fifth again, but all attention was on the red cars and silver cars. Fastest sectors were reeling through every which where.
Massa was absolutely blasting around and while Raikkonen then Alonso popped up in the top spot the Brazilian outdid them both with a 1:35.043, 0.267 up on Alonso and over four tenths up on teammate Raikkonen. A thrilling finale to qualifying and Massa carried through his practice confidence in fine style.
"I am very happy with this pole," he said. "On my second run I had a bit of traffic but on the last one, I got a really clean lap and I got a hundred percent out of the car. At turn 7 and in the final sector there were a few drops of rain, but luckily it did not get worse and I was able to finish my run without any bother. Obviously, tomorrow I want to finish the race in the same position in which I start it."
How the different strategies will play out on Sunday will be interesting but it seems to be a great battle between Ferrari and McLaren. Massa appears to have had the edge on Raikkonen all weekend and his pole lap was stellar, but the Finn has extraordinary race pace. Alonso firmly trumped Hamilton today but will it last?
"All in all I'm very pleased as I think we have closed most of the gap to Ferrari," the Spaniard commented. "We made some improvements overnight and also between running this morning and qualifying, and the car is working well. I think we can have a strong race tomorrow, but the heat and humidity makes it tough on everything and everybody, but we will push 100%."
Raikkonen wasn't quite happy with the car. "All in all, today's result is what we could have expected," he said. "The balance of my car was better than in yesterday's free practice, but still not perfect for a single timed lap. But it is very good over a long run and so I think I can be a frontrunner in tomorrow's race. The battle was very close but we saw already in Melbourne that the McLaren is competitive in qualifying."
The BMWs put in another strong performance, Heidfeld fifth and Kubica seventh, but the quiet star of the show was Rosberg in sixth. The youngster has been keeping his head down and really getting some results out of that Williams. Trulli and Schumacher took eighth and ninth respectively and Webber rounded out the top 10.
Barring any first corner incidents, random acts of madness or rain, it's hard to see anyone but McLaren and Ferrari competing for the race honours. Their pace seems fairly evenly matched but I would reckon that if Massa gets cleanly away, he will be hard to beat. Final top ten classification: Massa, Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Heidfeld, Rosberg, Kubica, Trulli, Schumacher, Webber.