The McLaren drivers and beaming returnee Romain Grosjean on Saturday looked to have knocked Red Bull from its dominant perch.
"McLaren had an upgrade at the last test and it's performed here at Albert Park," said former team driver and BBC commentator David Coulthard.
Lewis Hamilton beat his teammate Jenson Button to pole in Melbourne, but just a few tenths behind is the reigning GP2 champion Grosjean.
Frenchman Grosjean's teammate Kimi Raikkonen had a dire return qualifying performance by missing the Q1 cut, describing the session as "shit" according to the German press.
|Button will start second|
In total contrast, Grosjean was beaming: "A few people believed in me through the toughest time and I'm back -- almost at the top!"
The surprises continued beyond the top three: Mercedes' Michael Schumacher is fourth, and reigning champion Sebastian Vettel sixth.
"We are aware we need to improve," said Mark Webber, who qualified the sister Red Bull in fifth as both RB8 cars had KERS issues.
In much bigger strife is fabled Ferrari, with neither F2012 making it through to Q3.
Fernando Alonso threw his red car into the gravel and Felipe Massa is a disastrous 16th, with Sky analyst Martin Brundle described the handling of the F2012 as "horrible".
"Forget the reds," the summary report at Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport website, written by correspondent Andrea Cremonesi, said.
Said Spaniard Alonso: "We need to change the direction quickly if we're to challenge for the championship. We have to react."
Meanwhile, Lotus boss Eric Boullier answered "maybe" when asked on Sky UK television if the team will lodge an official protest against Mercedes' qualifying result, based on the belief the W03's F-duct solutions are illegal.
1. Hamilton - McLaren seems to have the car this year. We think their FDuct interpretation is a big help at this track, and they have a much faster pit stop too - probably the race winner.
2. Vettel - car may be slightly off from last year but good driver of course - I think the car isn't getting off the slow corners as well as last years car.
3. Button - only a tick off of Hamilton and Vettel.
4. Schumacher - been looking great all weekend so far - probably a podium finish and could win if something happens to Hamilton
5. Grosjean - showing some serious speed and faster than Kimi all weekend
6. Webber - seems to be a bit off
7. Rosberg - This kid is good and fast, but just never seems to excite me for some reason. He is no Keke.
8. Alonso - great qualifying for a horrible car
9. Raikkonen - still getting his feet warm again but will have a decent race
10. Perez - quick in a very mediocre car
11. Kobayashi - seems to have decent qual on flowing circuits like Oz
12. Ricciardo - Toro Rosso still mid pack at best, but he is carrying the car
13. Massa - washed up - Ferrari would be better off with Rossi
14. Maldonado - faster than Senna pretty much all the time
15. Di Resta - has his moments but will get passed up under qual pressure
16. Hulkenberg - all very good drivers this year but Hulk doesnâ€™t seem to be living up to expectations after dominant feeder series record
17. Senna - Not Ayrton. Not even close
18. Vergne - Will get better as year goes on. Has the talent.
19. Petrov - really good driver - terrible car
20. Kovalainen - good driver who has lost his fire in crummy cars. This is another one.
"The first qualifying session of the year proved to be as tight a competition as we had all hoped for. I am certainly happy with our performance which is a huge step forward, considering where we were in qualifying here last year. I can only thank the guys for all of the hard work that they have achieved over the winter. I also think it is important to stress that Mercedes-Benz have always believed in and supported this project, and I really hope we can deliver the results we all want. We have to take this step-by-step as the competition is very tight, so now we have to continue to work hard."
MARK WEBBER, Position: 5th, (3rd Practice â€“ P3, 1:25.900)
â€śWe knew there were some quick guys out there - McLaren and Mercedes especially and Roman did well too. Everyone always thinks we have special bits to keep coming back, but this year itâ€™s opened right up. I didnâ€™t have KERS at the end of the session, which affects your rhythm during qualifying â€“ itâ€™s a shame as itâ€™s been faultless all winter. Iâ€™m pleased with my lap in Q3. We can still get on the podium tomorrow, but we have some fast cars around us, no question about it.â€ť
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, Position: 6th, (3rd Practice â€“ P7, 1:26.211)
â€śItâ€™s the first qualifying of the year, so itâ€™s always difficult to know what to expect, but I think what we saw today was not a surprise, the lap times were close. We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasnâ€™t happy with my lap. I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me. I could have been one or two places higher, but thatâ€™s how it goes. We are not starting at the front, but we are not starting at the back either, so itâ€™s far from disastrous and regarding the car we know what we need to do. We have a long race ahead of us tomorrow and a lot of opportunities, so Iâ€™m looking forward to it.â€ť
"We are happy to see that we have obviously improved the car over the winter. It seems that we can be strong in the race as well from what we learned during practice this weekend. Unfortunately I didn't get the most out of it today. I didn't quite find the right set-up as we have a lot of new things on the car and it will take a few races to get it working perfectly. I also made a small mistake on my last lap which cost me some time. Seventh place is still a good position though and I will be doing my best to move forward tomorrow."
Kamui Kobayashi Sauber C31-Ferrari (Chassis 01/Ferrari 056)
â€śThis is obviously disappointing. In Q1 I was really happy with the car and the grip and, of course, it felt great to have set the fastest lap. But then on my second run in Q2 with another new set of soft tires I just could not find grip. I have no explanation for that, it felt totally different. I also had traffic in the last sector, but the main surprise was the lack of grip. Thirteenth is not really a nice position to start from and it doesnâ€™t reflect the potential of the car. However, we will try to achieve the best possible result tomorrow.â€ť
Sergio Perez Sauber C31-Ferrari (Chassis 03/Ferrari 056)
â€ťWe made some set-up changes to the car today and in Q1 I was busy adapting my driving style a bit. In Q2 I knew exactly what to do but then I could not shift anymore because of a gearbox problem. It is a true shame as there was a lot more to come from the car and from myself. Starting from 17th will make it very difficult to get a good result on Sunday. I will do my best.â€ś
Daniel Ricciardo (STR7-01)
â€śThat was nice! The ambition at the start of the weekend, as far as qualifying was concerned, was to get into Q3 and we have achieved that. Before we got to Melbourne, we did not have a clear idea of how our pace would compare with the other teams. In fact, I thought Q3 might have been a little bit out of reach, so this was a really positive result for me and for the team. We should have a strong race as we are in good shape, so it will be a case of trying to get the best start possible followed by a good opening lap and see how we get on from there. It will be a bit of a new experience for me compared to last year as this is the first time I start a Grand Prix from as high as the mid-field. Today, we have laid the groundwork for Sunday and Jean-Eric is not far behind me, which will keep me on my toes, so as a team we can be pleased with the work we have done.â€ť
Jean-Eric Vergne (STR7-03)
â€śThat was not bad I think, even if it is a bit disappointing to have missed out on Q3 by a very small margin. I got a very good lap in Q1, a bit less so in Q2. But I still have a lot to learn at this stage and the main thing is that everything went well and I am enjoying all the new experiences. There are many positives to be taken from the way qualifying went and I feel we have a car that should work well in tomorrowâ€™s race. I am looking forward to it â€“ it should be fun. My target for tomorrow? To score some points.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m very happy with todayâ€™s result because I was not sure we would be able to make Q3. We did a good job after FP3 to improve the set-up and Iâ€™m feeling much more comfortable with the car now. Obviously going into the race there is some uncertainty because we havenâ€™t really done many runs on high fuel here because of the wet sessions yesterday, but all the teams are in the same situation. Itâ€™s the same case with the tires because we will still be learning about them tomorrow and discovering how long they last. It should be an exciting race and Iâ€™m looking forward to it.â€ť
Paul di Resta
â€śIt was quite a difficult session and I never quite got it together. I think my out lap was compromised by traffic and, as a result, I didnâ€™t get the tires in their working range, which hurt my quick lap. So thereâ€™s a lot of work to be done tomorrow and I need to work hard tonight to see if thereâ€™s anything that can be done overnight to improve things for tomorrow. Over the winter our long run pace has looked quite strong so hopefully I can move forward in the race and challenge for some points.â€ť
Heikki Kovalainen, car 20, chassis CT01-#3
â€śI'm reasonably positive about today. We didn't get everything we could out of the car in Q1 but it felt better this afternoon than it did in FP3 and on my last quick lap I was held up by an HRT which probably cost me something like six tenths, but around this sort of circuit that's one of the issues you have to deal with. There are quite a few positives to take out of today, the main one being that we know we're much closer to the cars in front than where we finished last year, and now we have KERS and a better package overall, so I think tomorrow's race could be really interesting. .â€ť
Vitaly Petrov, car 21, chassis CT01-#2
â€śFor me that was an ok qualifying, maybe not quite what we had hoped for but we know there's more to come. We obviously lost time yesterday, and today the performance run was cut short in FP3 with a hydraulics issue, but I pushed as hard as I could and I think my engineer and I are finding out more about how to fine tune the setup for me every time I go out on track so the more time I spend in the car, the better I'm feeling.â€ť
Pedro de la Rosa
"We did all we could today. The team put in a great shift and just making it to today was an accomplishment for us, because these days have been very hard for all of us, including the drivers. But thereâ€™s a lot of room for improvement and, although itâ€™s true that we have to change many things, we know what they are, so all I can say is that we need to be patient. I already said it when I arrived on Wednesday, this is a test for us, itâ€™s our preseason. The downside is that weâ€™re doing it in front of the cameras because everything is more evident. We should have done it before but we lacked the time, so now all we can do is work for Malaysia and the following races and focus on the important areas to make the car quickerâ€ť.
"We knew it would be tough coming into Australia but todayâ€™s result is hugely disappointing for any driver, thereâ€™s no doubt about that. We can try and come up with excuses but, at the end of the day, we lacked preseason running time. We were up against it from the word go and yesterdayâ€™s weather wasnâ€™t good which resulted in us losing a lot of dry running, hurting us badly. Weâ€™ve had a lot of issues with the car, which is something normal during preseason, but the problem is that this weekend was our own particular preseason and we were fighting against the clock. So thereâ€™s a fair amount of work to do and hopefully we can improve and move on from thisâ€ť.
It was a great start to the season for the team today. We have shown that we are competitive, and we now need to keep pushing. The car has been improving throughout the weekend, and we need to keep going in that direction. Itâ€™s now down to our pace and strategy for tomorrowâ€™s race.
Itâ€™s a bit of a lottery when you go into qualifying without having had a full day of running on Friday, but the car feels good. Pastor qualified in the top 10 which is a really good sign for the team. I wasnâ€™t particularly happy with my lap, but itâ€™s the first qualifying session of the year. We have 19 more to go, and I am sure with a little more experience, everything will come together. Tomorrow is a different day, so we will see what we can do.
Timo Glock #24
â€śFree Practice 3 was my first chance to drive the car in stable conditions and it was clear that we had a lot of work to do on set-up. We had a big program for practice, and qualifying actually, and we made a lot of changes, all of which were the right ones and made us a little step better each time. I am very pleased with what we have achieved so far. Mechanically Iâ€™m very happy with the car and everything is working well. Weâ€™ve all had a great lift but we have a long way to go and plenty of hard work to do to make the car quicker. The baseline is right but we have a lot of catching up to do. I have to say though that I am looking forward to the future and it feels great to have fun driving a Formula 1 car again!â€ť
Charles Pic #25
â€śToday has been non-stop and we have had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. Everyone has worked so hard to get us to a good position for qualifying and the race, and I would like to thank the whole team for their support, which has been incredible. We havenâ€™t had the best preparation and there is more to come that we donâ€™t even know about yet. Iâ€™m happy for today and for the team. Tomorrow is another day and I have to keep pushing hard for the race. I am very excited but I want to stay focused and leave the weekend knowing I got everything I could ask from myself in my first race.â€ť
||Paul di Resta
||Pedro de la Rosa