Sebastian Vettel on pole, Lewis Hamilton 11th. For sure, this was not how the 2008 world champion envisaged his weekend shaping up. It is tempting to suggest that things began to go wrong for the McLaren driver on Friday night, when he paid a high price for a bit of motorised horseplay after Victoria's notorious Traffic Management cops took a dim view of the way he squirted his Mercedes alongside a bemused Bruno Senna as they left the circuit, then skidded it sideways and left across his bows. Cue heavy-handed tactics and an impounded car.
Compared to the race across Heroes' Square in Budapest between the former grand prix racer Innes Ireland and the McLaren leader Ron Dennis back in 1988, it was mild stuff. But these days any sign of maverick character is to be frowned upon, and it did not help that a restaurateur had been killed at that very spot in a motorcycle accident last week.
"I was driving in an over-exuberant manner and, as a result, was stopped by the police," a sheepish Hamilton said. "What I did was silly, and I want to apologise for it." It set the tone for his Saturday. He was seventh fastest in the morning's practice, and his final qualifying session was a disaster.
Red Bull showed their pace in Bahrain was no fluke, as Vettel and his team-mate, Mark Webber, wrapped up the front row of the grid with laps of 1min 23.919sec and 1:24.035 respectively, but there was a sign of greater threat from Ferrari as the championship leader, Fernando Alonso, was only a 10th of a second adrift with 1:24.111.
"It's a great result for both of us and for the team," Vettel said. "[It is] Mark's home race, so it is a little bit funny remembering last year from Germany when he took the pole, so a kind of revenge. The first lap was the quickest and just spot-on everywhere until I reached the last three corners. I would say Turn 14, the fast right-hander, I was still on the edge and OK, but after that I lost a little bit, especially the last corner on to the main straight. It was a very good lap up to that point. I was very happy. The result says it all."
Webber allowed that he was not particularly impressed with second place. "Obviously I'm not happy with the order but Seb did a great job and both of us pushed each other hard, and that is what it's about at this level. He got one back on me from Germany last year when I got pole from him, so in the end we had a good battle today and we go again tomorrow."
Alonso's performance was a surprise, as was Jenson Button's, for both are perceived to have very smooth driving styles yet each got better tyre temperatures than either of their supposedly harsher-driving team-mates.
Alonso was asked if his race pace would be smack on that of the Red Bulls, as Bahrain had suggested once they ran the harder Bridgestone tyre, but he was cagey. "No idea. We see tomorrow. Qualifying has been good for us. We knew that to beat the Red Bulls was a difficult thing to do here so we just concentrated to maximise our potential, so third I think is a very good result and the pace has been good in one-lap performance. The race is long. We will try to finish and hopefully be on the podium again like in Bahrain, and keep on scoring points."
And he reiterated a point that Vettel had made earlier, that a long race could spring several surprises, given Albert Park's previous history.
"There could be safety cars, accidents, problems," he said. "It's very tough for the mechanical aspect of the car. First we need to finish the race and then we will see if we were quick enough to fight for the win or not."
Button is also hopeful of getting in on that act, even though his McLaren was not as good in qualifying as the temperature dropped. "After our strong performance yesterday, this morning the car didn't work as well as we'd expected. We lacked grip, and it looks as though the cars ahead of us here have more downforce," the reigning world champion reported.
But he looked strong, whereas Hamilton was clearly struggling. "Today was a surprise," Lewis admitted. "I wasn't expecting to be out in Q2. I felt I got as much as I could out of the car, but I just couldn't get the grip from the tyres."
With rain a distinct possibility, and Hamilton intent on bulling up from 11th, the potential is there for a much better race than Bahrain. Millions of spectators across the globe will be praying for that.