MANAMA, April 21, 2012 (AFP / Gordon Howard) - Defending double world champion Sebastian Vettel grabbed his first pole position of 2012 on Saturday when he planted his Red Bull car at the top of the times in qualifying for Sunday's controversial Bahrain Grand Prix.
The 24-year-old German outpaced McLaren's Lewis Hamilton by just 0.098 seconds to take the 31st pole of his career following a relatively lacklustre start to the season.
The second Red Bull of Mark Webber and Hamilton's teammate Jenson Button will start on the second row.
This speedy top four were able to push last weekend's maiden F1 victor Nico Rosberg down to fifth with a thrilling final flurry of laps in the closing seconds that left the Mercedes driver, who chose to run only once in Q3, slightly off the pace.
His Mercedes team-mate, seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, was dumped out of qualifing in Q1 when he also was restricted to one run only by a technical problem with his Drag Reduction System (DRS).
Australian rookie Daniel Ricciardo was sixth for Toro Rosso ahead of Romain Grosjean of Lotus, Mexican Sergio Perez of Sauber, two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Paul Di Resta of Force India, who was 10th.
"Yes, that feels great," said a relieved Vettel, who had scraped unconvincingly through both Q1 and Q2 before shining in the top-ten shootout.
"We are back at the front and I owe it to the guys in the team. They have worked so hard, put in the hours and not had much sleep in these first four weekends this year. So they have earned it and I am happy for them
Hamilton said he was content with second, splitting the Red Bulls and bringing to an end a trio of front row lockouts by a single team - McLaren in both Australia and Malaysia and then Mercedes in China.
"Definitely, that was good for me and I am happy with the job that we have done," said the 2008 champion who leads the 2012 drivers' standings.
"We have done a lot of work on the set-up and it was a bit of a scare for me in Q1, but the laps after that were really good."
Webber said he, too, felt satisfied and confident.
"We are back at the front and that is the place to start races from," the Australian said.
On another steaming hot day at the Sakhir circuit in the desert, where the heat and dust, made worse by sandstorms, produced much slipping and sliding, the air temperature was 32 degrees Celsius and the track temperature was 43 degrees.
The first mini-session Q1 saw the shock exit of Schumacher after his Mercedes team chose to sit out the second part of the action.
A glum and frustrated Schumacher was left sitting in his car in the garage due to a team strategic error, in contrast to his rivals, many of whom chose to run again just to ensure they made the cut.
As a result, the 43-year-old German was eliminated ahead of Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne, Caterham's Vitaly Petrov, Charles Pic of Marussia, veteran Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa of Hispania, Timo Glock of Marussia and Indian Narain Karthikeyan in the second Hispania car.
"There was a problem with the rear wing, it didn't help on my lap and didn't allow me to improve," said a clearly disgruntled Schumacher, who started from the front row last week in China alongside Rosberg.
Q2 also delivered a few shocks with the eliminations of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen of Renault and Felipe Massa of Ferrari, who failed to make the top ten for the fourth time in four races this year.