MELBOURNE, March 17, 2012 (AFP) - Dazzling Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the Australian Grand Prix Saturday ahead of his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, with defending world champion Sebastian Vettel back in sixth.
Britain's Hamilton, 27, the 2008 drivers' king, clocked a fastest time of one minute and 24.922 seconds around Melbourne's Albert Park track, beating Button by just one-tenth of a second.
In a thrilling finish to qualifying, Frenchman Romain Grosjean took third place for Lotus on his first appearance in Melbourne, pushing seven-time champion Michael Schumacher of Mercedes down to fourth.
That meant the Red Bull pairing of home hero Mark Webber and Germany's Vettel qualified fifth and sixth for the 58-lap race. But while Red Bull were disappointed, it was a near-disastrous day for Ferrari who failed to place a driver in the top 10 starting positions.
Two-time champion Fernando Alonso spun out at turn one in the second session and left his car beached in the gravel trap, while his team-mate Felipe Massa could not improve on 16th place.
It was also a bad session for returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, who failed to progress from the first part of qualifying in his Lotus and will start from 18th.
Schumacher's Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg was seventh ahead of Pastor Maldonado of Williams, Nico Hulkenberg of Force India and Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who marked his Melbourne debut by placing 10th for Toro Rosso.
For Hamilton, his speed brought the 20th pole of his career on a day when he was supported by his close friend and former fiancee Nicole Scherzinger.
Hamilton said: "It's a great start to the season for me and the team, but we know that it is only Saturday and tomorrow is the day that counts.
"I must say the team has done a great job. It has been a great effort by the team after a couple of tough years. It was a great lap for me and I tried to improve it by braking later at turn one the next time, but unfortunately it didn't work and luckily for me my first lap was good enough."
Button also paid warm tribute to the McLaren team. "They have done a fantastic job over the winter and this is the proof of that," he said. "We have done a good job to get the best out of ourselves this weekend.
"We will enjoy this moment, but we want to go out and have a great race. That's what matters for us."
Grosjean was delighted with third-place finish. "I always had this kind of a dream and today it is not a dream. We are here. It is a great feeling and it is a wonderful feeling for the team."
On a dry and cool evening as the sun fell over Albert Park, the opening qualifying mini-session delivered a predictable outcome with the elimination of the HRT and Marussia drivers.
Because HRT's Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan both failed to qualify within 107 per cent of the pole time, they will not be allowed to take part in Sunday's race.
The surprise came with the elimination of Raikkonen along with Russian Vitaly Petrov, who finished third in this event in 2011 for the then Renault team, now renamed Lotus.
The second session, Q2, saw Alonso fly off the track and then stamp furiously in a clearly fit of frustration and anger as he confronted the race marshals helping him from his car.
He was eliminated, in 12th place, along with 11th-placed Jean-Eric Vergne of Toro Rosso, Kamui Kobayashi of Sauber, Bruno Senna of Williams, Paul Di Resta of Force India, Massa and Mexico's Sergio Perez in the second Sauber.
Hamilton, champion in 2008, has vowed to bounce back from a disappointing series last year when he was distracted by personal problems and finished fifth in the standings.
And Vettel is launching his bid to become only the third driver to win three Formula One championships in a row, after the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher.
Below the qualifying results for the 2012 Australian GP: