Lewis Hamilton will start on pole position for the season opening Australian Grand Prix, while reigning champion Kimi Raikkonen will begin his title defence from a disastrous 16th on the grid after suffering from fuel pressure problems in the first part of qualifying.
The Finn's Ferrari slowed dramatically after its first flying lap of the session, and although Raikkonen tried to keep it rolling as far as the team's garage, it came to a halt at the start of the pitlane entry. The Ferrari crew pushed the car back to their pit, but Raikkonen could take no further part in the session.
That removed Hamilton's main pole position rival from Q3, and the Briton duly secured the top spot with a 1:26.714 lap.
But Hamilton had to push hard to resist a strong challenge from BMW's Robert Kubica - who briefly snatched provisional pole from the McLaren driver despite running extremely wide at Turn 12 on his best lap. The Pole still earned his first ever front row start, with teammate Nick Heidfeld taking fifth.
Hamilton's teammate Heikki Kovalainen took third in his first qualifying session for McLaren, three tenths of a second behind Hamilton, while Felipe Massa could only manage fourth for Ferrari, abandoning his final flying lap.
The highly eventful qualifying session also saw former world champion Fernando Alonso missing the top ten cut on his return to Renault. The Spaniard will start 12th, having lapped 0.024 seconds slower than required to get through to Q3.
Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel was one of the stars of qualifying, as he secured his first top ten start for the team in dry conditions. While his new teammate Sebastien Bourdais was eliminated in Q1 and will start 18th, Vettel not only made the Q2 cut but then went sixth fastest in the session.
However an oil pump problem then struck and prevented Vettel from taking part in Q3, leaving the German 10th.
Both Toyotas reached Q3, with Jarno Trulli taking a strong sixth on the grid and returnee Timo Glock earning 9th. The duo were split by Williams' Nico Rosberg and Red Bull's David Coulthard.
The home crowd's hopes of another star showing by Mark Webber were dashed when the Australian crashed out of qualifying in the second session. His Red Bull suffered an apparent brake failure going into Turn 7 and spun to a halt in the gravel trap, leaving Webber 15th on the grid. With the car stopped on the edge of the circuit, qualifying was briefly red flagged to allow its removal.
Although neither Honda made the top ten, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button showed much better form than the team's testing pace had suggested. They took 11th and 13th on the grid, ahead of Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, with Barrichello lapping within 0.009 seconds of a top ten place, and Button just 0.086 seconds slower.
Despite the promise they showed in practice, Force India failed to achieve their goal of reaching Q2. Giancarlo Fisichella took 17th, while Adrian Sutil spun and stalled on his final Q1 run, ending up 19th on the grid.
Nelson Piquet's troubled Formula One debut got even worse in qualifying - the rookie only managing 21st in Q1, 1.4 seconds slower than teammate Alonso. The Brazilian will start his maiden GP from the back row of the grid, sandwiched between the two Super Aguris.
Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3 Laps 1. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:26.572 1:25.187 1:26.714 14 2. Kubica BMW Sauber 1:26.103 1:25.315 1:26.869 15 3. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes 1:25.664 1:25.452 1:27.079 13 4. Massa Ferrari 1:25.994 1:25.691 1:27.178 12 5. Heidfeld BMW Sauber 1:25.960 1:25.518 1:27.236 16 6. Trulli Toyota 1:26.427 1:26.101 1:28.527 17 7. Rosberg Williams-Toyota 1:26.295 1:26.059 1:28.687 21 8. Coulthard Red Bull-Renault 1:26.381 1:26.063 1:29.041 18 9. Glock Toyota 1:26.919 1:26.164 1:29.593 17 10. Vettel Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:26.702 1:25.842 18 11. Barrichello Honda 1:26.369 1:26.173 13 12. Alonso Renault 1:26.907 1:26.188 10 13. Button Honda 1:26.712 1:26.259 13 14. Nakajima Williams-Toyota 1:26.891 1:26.413 13 15. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:26.914 8 16. Raikkonen Ferrari 1:26.140 3 17. Fisichella Force India-Ferrari 1:27.207 9 18. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:27.446 10 19. Sutil Force India-Ferrari 1:27.859 9 20. Sato Super Aguri-Honda 1:28.208 9 21. Piquet Renault 1:28.330 6 22. Davidson Super Aguri-Honda 1:29.059 9 All timing unofficial