Lewis Hamilton made it three poles in a row to open up the 2015 season as he edged team-mate Nico Rosberg in qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix.
The world champion’s first effort of 1:35.782 in the final top 10 shoot-out was just 0.042 of a second clear of the German as the single lap pace of the Mercedes was comfortably clear of the challenging Ferrari’s.
Sebastian Vettel produced a good final lap to claim third but it wasn't the smoothest of sessions for Ferrari who had to use a set of the soft compound tyres at the start of the session following insufficient pace on their first initial run on the mediums.
Ferrari ups and downs
That put them at a disadvantage in their bid to pressure Mercedes in Q3 as their first run had to be completed on the scrubbed set needed to ensure promotion into Q2.
Indeed rather than pressuring Mercedes, Kimi Raikkonen put too much pressure on himself as he made crucial errors in the first few corners of his final run and again faces the peril of behind closer to the midfield pack on the run into turn one at the start.
That's because the Finn's eventual time was only good enough for sixth as both Williams finally began to show the pace that was expected and Felipe Massa produced a good final effort to beat team-mate Valtteri Bottas as they line-up fourth and fifth.
Daniel Ricciardo highlighted the gains Red Bull have made in Shanghai taking seventh moving four tenths clear of the midfield scrap led by the Lotus of Romain Grosjean.
Sauber show progress
It was a very close battle for the final top 10 places but the continued improvement of Sauber was on show as both Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson completed what would be the points scoring places on Sunday.
It was the first time since Austin 2013 that the Swiss team has gotten both cars into the top 10 and the team currently fourth in the Constructors' championship has a good platform to consolidate that place in the race.
McLaren fall short again
Only 1.3 seconds covered Grosjean in eighth to the disappointing McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso who were only covered by four thousandths of a second in 17th and 18th but after suggesting signs of progress in the practice session to be 3.5 seconds slower than the
pace setting Mercedes highlights there is still a lot of work to be done.
Given the competitiveness of the midfield each team has its two drivers very close on track with the two Force India’s leading the two McLaren’s, Sergio Perez beating Nico Hulkenberg for the first time this season, and the two Toro Rosso’s just ahead of them with Max Verstappen just over a tenth clear of Carlos Sainz Jr..
Daniil Kvyat was struggling to recover from brake problems that have hampered him all weekend so far but the Russian is still not matching the potential some believed he would show upon his promotion to the main Red Bull team as he was half a second behind Daniel Ricciardo and five
places behind in 12th.
At the back both Manor Marussia’s made the 107% time to automatically be eligible to race on Sunday with Will Stevens beating Roberto Merhi in the battle on the back row.
Can Ferrari keep Mercedes in sight?
Back at the front and it was a fascinating tactical battle on show between Mercedes and Ferrari even if their respective pace was still nearly a full second apart.
Tyre use is the key factor as the Ferrari’s continue to look stronger on the softer compound than the Mercedes and just how long the two teams can use the much faster option rubber in the race will be key as to how the race plays out.
If Ferrari can do two stints on the soft compound compared to just one for Mercedes then we do have a big race on our hands but even if the mediums are the favoured tyre for both, Raikkonen showed more than enough on Friday to keep Mercedes on their toes.
It’s very much the tortoise using alternative methods to try to beat the hare and following Ferrari’s success in doing so in Sepang, watch their attempts to for a repeat on Sunday will make for a very intriguing race indeed.