Kimi Raikkonen was more red hot than Iceman in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix as he confidently claimed his first pole position for Ferrari at the first race of the season. His best time was 1:26.072 but it was mixed fortunes for Ferrari as Felipe Mass had a gearbox problem in the second session and didn't set a time.
Fernando Alonso didn't seem quite as happy with his McLaren as he might have been but he responded to Raikkonen's challenge and will line up alongside his rival on the front row in second. BMW Sauber looked competitive in the practices and Nick Heidfeld confirmed that with third and McLaren rookie Lewis Hamilton impressed with fourth.
F1 has stuck with the knockout qualifying format and the first 15 minute session got under way with drier track conditions than this morning's practice, although it was quite windy. Spyker's Christijan Albers was first out, then the Super Aguri of Anthony Davidson and the Toyotas of Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli.
Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello were quickly on the circuit in the Hondas, followed by the second Super Aguri of Takuma Sato and Red Bull's David Coulthard. Albers clocked 1:32.300 for the first time of the session. The Williams pair of Alex Wurz and Nico Roberg joined the action and Davidson took over at the top.
Schumacher posted second then Button took it off him and Trulli was next to go fastest, 1:28.709. Red Bull's Mark Webber, Hamilton and the Toro Rossos of Scott Speed and Tonio Liuzzi were all out on track by then. Coulthard undercut Trulli's time by about a tenth and a half and Rosberg clocked second.
Webber was quicker than teammate Coulthard but was immediately knocked off the top by Hamilton, 1:26.674 for over a second up. Speed was third and Rosberg fourth and with six minutes remaining the Ferraris of Raikkonen and Massa and Alonso's McLaren appeared, along with the Renaults of Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen.
Alonso managed second, just fractionally behind Hamilton, then Raikkonen went fastest, a similar fraction faster than Hamilton. The BMW Saubers of Heidfeld and Robert Kubica were the last to go out onto the circuit. Massa took fourth on his first flyer and Kovalainen eighth, while Fisichella clocked a solid fifth on his initial effort.
Heidfeld slotted into the fifth spot and Kubica went quicker still for third. Davidson had a supercharged middle sector and went back up to seventh and Sato followed along for ninth. Button was a late climber to 11th after being moved down the order and there was a last minute rush to avoid the drop-out zone.
Not everyone made it, obviously, and while Button did, Barrichello was 17th and led the list of those who went out. Then came Speed, Coulthard, Liuzzi, Sutil and Albers. Super Aguri was happy as for the first time both cars went through. Raikkonen remained fastest, 1:26.644, followed by Hamilton and Kubica in second and third.
Rosberg and Wurz were out first in the second session and several others quickly followed on. Trulli managed to leave his pit box with a jack still attached to the car; it fell off at the pit exit and the car seemed unscathed. However, teammate Schumacher apparently did have a problem and was trailing around slowly with a suspected gearbox issue.
Davidson was an early leader, then Webber and Fisichella cycled through with Sato and Trulli next on the list. Kubica hit the top spot but Hamilton was on a hot lap and took over almost immediately, 1:25.577. Teammate Alonso was three hundredths down for second -- was Hamilton going to outdo the world champion in his first ever F1 qualifying?
Heidfeld took third, BMW looking strong at Albert Park, although Raikkonen snatched it off him on his first flyer. Massa was a late runner but suddenly slowed drastically with the gearbox gremlin. Melbourne has never been fortunate for the Brazilian and he will start 16th, as Schumacher had managed to get back out and into the top 10.
Meanwhile, Alonso and Heidfeld had moved ahead of Hamilton, Alonso's best a 1:25.326. Knocked out at the end were Davidson, who only just missed in 11th, then Rosberg, Kovalainen, Button, Wurz and, of course, Massa. Disappointing for Williams and Kovalainen but once again Super Aguri had reason to be happy as Sato went through in 10th.
Raikkonen led the remaining 10 cars out for the final session and the usual fuel-burning phase got under way. The Finn and Heidfeld were early front runners, followed by the Toyotas, but no serious lap times were being done. It wasn't until there was about seven minutes left that things got started.
Hamilton and Fisichella were in first for a tyre change, then Alonso and the rest not far behind. Schumacher went to the top, then Fisichella, but Hamilton and Alonso were both on flyers. Hamilton went fastest and was immediately demoted by Alonso, 1:27.050, who had a similarly short-lived stint at the top as Raikkonen clocked 1:26.072.
Not only that, Heidfeld dropped into second so Alonso was then moved to the second row. There was just enough time for another lap and everyone took the opportunity. It was a bit of a mad rush; Hamilton moved into second but lost it to Alonso, while Raikkonen didn't improve on his time but he didn't need to and had secured pole position.
"Yeah, it has been good," the Finn said about his start to the weekend. "OK, yesterday wasn't perfect but I think the weather was the issue yesterday and today has been pretty good. We found a good set-up for the car. Unfortunately we didn't have as good a result as we wanted as a team -- Felipe had some problems -- but hopefully we can sort out those problems and have a good race."
"I think we have a good race package. I think we are more confident for the "race than we were for qualifying. As long as everything works well and we don't have any problems, I think we should be OK but you never know. So many things can happen. Usually the race here is quite a funny one, but we will do the best that we can and hopefully we can win."
Heidfeld had a good last flyer and split the two McLarens for third, with BMW teammate Kubica a decent fifth. Hamilton was quite a star in his qualifying debut and could be heading for his first podium in his debut race. However, there's a long afternoon to get through on Sunday -- but a very good start for both McLaren and BMW.
"We should try to win the race for sure," Alonso commented. "We are second so we are in the second-best position to win it and I think we can do it. We have made huge progress and improvement since the last test in terms of car performance in the long runs that was maybe our weakest point and I think tomorrow we will see the result. But we should be quite happy with our qualifying and optimistic for tomorrow."
Heidfeld was happy to be so high up the grid. "In my view, Ferrari is still ahead," he stated. "Before we came here we thought that as well and hoped that we might be in the pack behind them. Honestly I'm a bit surprised that Renault wasn't quicker today. I expected them to be there as well. We will only see tomorrow in the race how things are going. It's always the same, you never know how much fuel the others guys have, but we can be pleased."
Fisichella finished a reasonable sixth but Renault didn't really have the pace of Ferrari, McLaren and BMW. After his rather gloomy predictions about Red Bull's competitiveness on Friday, Webber was a surprisingly healthy seventh, although teammate Coulthard never even got past the first session.
Trulli and Schumacher were also a bit surprising in eighth and ninth as Toyota didn't show a great deal of pace in testing. You just never know, although how they fare over a race distance is the next question. Sato couldn't improve on his 10th place but it was quite an achievement for Super Aguri all the same.
Raikkonen and Alonso, thought by many to be the main title protagonists, on the front row is an exciting prospect. The Ferrari does seem to have the edge but the McLaren looks to be much improved from last season so it's hard to say who might triumph. It will certainly be interesting to find out. Let's hope there's no first corner madness…
That aside, BMW may throw a spanner in the works and so far Hamilton is proving that he's ready for a fight as well. Anything could happen -- the race can't come soon enough! Final top ten classification: Raikkonen, Alonso, Heidfeld, Hamilton, Kubica, Fisichella, Webber, Trulli, Schumacher, Sato.