SEPANG  - Britain's Lewis Hamilton made it two straight pole positions to start the season as he dominated qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix on Saturday. Hamilton , who started from pole last week in Australia but finished third, timed 1min 36.219sec in the decisive qualifying session ahead of team-mate Jenson Button, with seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher third.
Red Bull's Mark Webber was fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and defending world champion Sebastian Vettel in sixth. However, Raikkonen will drop five places for an unscheduled gearbox change. McLaren have not been headed in qualifying this year after also claiming the top two places last week. Button, the 2009 world champion, won from second on the grid in Melbourne to lead the early championship ahead of Vettel. "It's been a good weekend so far. It's been a tough day with the changing weather conditions and the temperatures climbing," said Hamilton . "We made some changes to the car but we still managed to do some good times." In hot but dry conditions, Red Bull's Webber nabbed the top time in the dying seconds of the first 20-minute qualifying segment, in which Ferrari's Massa flirted with elimination before recovering to scrape through in 15th.
And in Q2, seven-time world champion Schumacher left it until his very last lap before climbing from 11th to fourth. Raikkonen was quickest but there was no top-10 shoot-out for the embattled Massa, who wound up 12th. In a thrilling Q3, Raikkonen, Button and Hamilton outpaced each other in quick succession at the top of the standings and with two minutes remaining, Schumacher's challenge agonisingly short of the front row. "It's good for us as a team to be on the front row again," Button said. "You want it to be the other way round as well but Lewis did a great lap at the start of Q3. We edged closer but couldn't quite get there." Schumacher said his Mercedes team had squeezed every ounce of performance from their car, whose innovative 'W-duct' rear wing has been the first source of technical controversy this season.
"This was the maximum that was available," Schumacher said. "If you look who's behind us and how close everything is going we can be more than happy with what we achieved." This year's Formula One series features an unprecedented six former world champions, with Vettel, 24, bidding to become only the third driver in the sport's history to win three titles in a row.
Five of the six world title-winners have been victorious at Sepang, a fast circuit known for its strength-sapping humidity and frequent heavy rain. Vettel won the 2010 and 2011 races. Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Sauber's Mexican pilot Sergio Perez rounded out the top 10 timings.
Meanwhile Caterham's Heikki Kovalainen will start at the back of the grid after being slapped with a five-place penalty for overtaking under the safety car at last week's Australian Grand Prix.