Another fortnight, another track, but how quickly things change in Formula One. In Melbourne, Sebastian Vettel sat on pole position by a country mile in his Red Bull, eight-tenths of a second ahead of Lewis Hamilton's McLaren. Yesterday, they shared the fastest times again, but this time the world champion only beat his 2008 counterpart by 0.104s. Such are the vagaries of tyre wear, and Sepang's notoriously fickle weather, that predicting the outcome of today's race is far from easy.
The McLarens have been quick all weekend, but when the chips were down, the Red Bull – the car from Milton Keynes – just beat the car from Woking. "It was closer than Australia, and a challenging weekend until qualifying," Vettel said, after securing the 17th pole of his career. "I was happy with the car but never got into a rhythm. It was not a particular problem, things just weren't as smooth so we didn't have all the laps we wanted. There was traffic, then I did mistakes, and it didn't come together. It can be very challenging here, it takes a while to understand it. We knew we had it in the car, and the main thing was to keep believing in it. In qualifying it worked out straight away.
"Big compliments to the KERS guys, they sorted most of our problems. If we didn't have KERS we wouldn't be up here. The gap is a lot smaller than in Australia, so it shows how quickly things change."
Hamilton was philosophical about missing out on his first pole since Canada last June. "I don't think we can be disappointed. We've done a fantastic job even to be up there with the Red Bulls. We've got some more new parts here this weekend, and we are constantly moving forwards. I would have loved to have been on pole, of course, but these guys still have the slight edge. But we've closed the gap a little bit."
He admitted that his best lap was not perfect, that he had lost time in one particular corner, and that he had always expected Red Bull might have a little bit in hand. "They usually tend to pull something out of the bag going into their last run. But like I said, I can't be disappointed."
Hamilton's lap seemed enough, but after crossing the line only four seconds before the chequered flag ended the hour-long session, Vettel's time put the issue beyond doubt. And Mark Webber posted a timely upturn in fortunes after his home race, pipping Jenson Button in the other McLaren to third place. The laconic Australian said: "The race will be different to last year's, so it's going to be interesting." Indeed it is, with Pirelli predicting up to four pit stops per driver.
"The tyres don't last nearly as long here in the much hotter conditions," Vettel, the victor in 2010, said. "We'll see, but as Mark said, it'll be a quite different race. I just hope the spectators don't lose count of the pit stops."
1. S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1min 34.870sec; 2. L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:34.974; 3. M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:35.179; 4. J Button (GB) McLaren 1:35.200; 5. F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:35.802; 6. N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 1:36.124; 7. F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:36.251; 8. V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:36.324; 9. N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:36.809; 10. K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:36.820; 11. M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:37.035; 12. S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.160; 13. J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:37.347; 14. P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:37.370; 15. R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:37.496; 16. S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:37.528; 17. A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:37.593; 18. P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:38.276; 19. H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 1:38.645; 20. J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 1:38.791; 21. T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 1:40.648; 22. J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing 1:41.001; 23. V Liuzzi (It) HRT-F1 1:41.549; 24. N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 1:42.574.