Britons off the pace as Red Bull find their wings

Vettel snatches pole while Schumacher has little to smile about – but it could be all change at the finish line today

So now we know: Red Bull currently have the fastest car (at least for a lap), but Ferrari's isn't much slower. McLaren, however, have some work to do. Those were the lessons from the much-anticipated first qualifying session of the 2010 season which, with four world champions in the field, is being billed as the best ever.

Up until the start of qualifying it seemed a four-horse race, with McLaren and their old partner Mercedes in with an equal chance, and Force India and Sauber the most likely to spring surprises. But the reality was somewhat different as Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position.

Felipe Massa contained the much-vaunted challenge of his new Ferrari team-mate, Fernando Alonso, in his first race back since his horrible accident in Hungary last year, while Lewis Hamilton aced Jenson Button quite comfortably but McLaren were 1.1sec off the pace. And Michael Schumacher hurled toys from his pram more than once after his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, had a comfortable margin over him in every session.

For sure, there was plenty that did not go as expected. Inevitably, there were suggestions that Red Bull had been sandbagging in testing. But they had had a tough Friday, with driveshaft problems. And they made a few small but critical changes yesterday which all worked well.

"It was a big surprise, to be honest," Vettel said. "We didn't do as much running as we'd hoped for yesterday, and it was a long night for the mechanics. Then we changed some small things, nothing special, which had a big effect."

It was less of a surprise to see the Ferraris going so well, because they have been the most consistent performers all through testing. But it was against the run of predictions that Massa, the little guy whose welfare we all feared for last July, bounced insouciantly back to outdo Alonso, who is widely regarded as one of the two best drivers in the game.

One of the cool things about Vettel is that he has class. "I'm sure I speak on behalf of all the drivers," he said, "when I say great respect to Felipe for what he has achieved at his first race. It's good to have him back."

Massa's trademark naughty schoolboy smirk widened even more, and well it might have. Last July he was in big trouble after the accident in Hungary, yet here he was, right back into a comeback more convincing than Schumacher's. "It's just fantastic to be here, to fight again," he said. "After watching the races on TV, I can say that it's much better to be inside the car. I think it was very positive today, and we did a good job at home to prepare the car and move in the right direction. Me and Fernando second and third, that's great for the team." Beating Alonso was the icing on the cake.

At McLaren there was surprise, but not despair, at the relative lack of pace. The MP4-25 seemed vulnerable in the bumpy, unpopular Mickey Mouse sector two. "I'm surprised by this afternoon's result," Hamilton admitted. "I definitely wasn't expecting to be fourth quickest. We've struggled in the middle sector – we're lacking a bit of downforce. But this is a much, much better position to start the season than the one we found ourselves in last year." Button was similarly surprised, and said: "I really struggled with front- brake locking this afternoon – but we cured that problem throughout the sessions. I was getting happier with the car throughout each stint, but in Q3 something didn't feel quite right.

"Managing the tyres tomorrow is going to be very tricky. I don't think people perhaps understand how tough it is to look after them in these conditions – it's unbelievable how quickly they drop off. Today, we saw which cars are fast over one lap; tomorrow maybe we'll see a slightly different picture because these cars work very differently on higher fuel loads."

The other unhappy camp was Mercedes, where Schumacher's smile looked as convincing as a British MP's expenses claim. The current breed of F1 car, on the current Bridgestone tyres, understeers. Rosberg likes that, Schumacher does not; he wants a car on which he only has to breathe for it to throw itself into a corner, and to hell with resultant oversteer. Give him understeer, and even he's foxed. Don't be fooled, he was not a happy man in Bahrain. "Not much progress when you think about it," one cynic joked. "He qualified seventh for his first F1 race in Belgium back in 1991. Now look where he is second time around..."

This season, qualifying pace and race pace will be very different animals, and you only get the prizes (and those lovely revised points) for races. Tyre performance and preservation will be crucial, and that will depend on car design and driver sensitivity, so we could have a very different order this afternoon. Vettel liked that idea. "It's going to be a long, long race, an endurance event not a sprint," he beamed. "No one really knows what to expect, which makes it so exciting."

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