Nico Hulkenberg took full advantage of a drying track to take a completely unexpected pole position at Interlagos with a lap time that was over a second faster than the rest of the field.

Sebastian Vettel made it an all-German front row by taking second, with fellow championship contenders Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton third and fourth on the Brazilian Grand Prix grid.

Championship leader Fernando Alonso will start tomorrow's race fifth, alongside Rubens Barrichello – the highest placed Brazilian driver.

Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher, Felipe Massa and Vitaly Petrov make up the top ten on the grid. The fifth championship contender Jenson Button could only qualify eleventh.

Full wet and then intermediate Bridgestone tyres were needed in Free Practice 3 on the slowly drying track and more rain before qualifying ensured that the intermediate compound was still needed as Q1 got underway.

Rain was expected at some point during the qualifying hour, and so all 24 drivers rushed out onto the circuit – to roars from the Brazilian spectators – as the light at the end of the pit lane turned green.

Tonio Liuzzi had a slide off the track but recovered, albeit straight into the path of Force India teammate Adrian Sutil, but apart from this and a few minor off-track adventures for some other drivers, most remained within the white lines of the circuit. Laps were getting ever quicker as the track continued to dry, and the usual suspects were lurking at both the top and bottom of the timesheets.

The battle to avoid P18 and an early exit from Q1 was a contest between the two Force India drivers – a battle that Sutil lost by three tenths of a second. The German had just the six drivers from the new teams behind him on the grid but, to make matters worse, he will be docked a further five grid places when his penalty from Korea – a punishment for his destruction derby-style driving – is applied an hour before tomorrow's race.

Timo Glock was winner of the qualifying battle between the new teams, and he will start nineteenth. Behind the Virgin Racing driver the order will be Jarno Trulli, Heikki Kovalainen, Lucas di Grassi, Christian Klien and Bruno Senna, dead last at his home race.

Fernando Alonso put in a final flying lap to top the timesheets at the end of Q1, with Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel just behind the championship leader.

There was still no sign of rain as Q2 got underway and, whilst the teams revised their weather forecasts, lap times continued to tumble. It was still too wet for slick tyres, but the track was steadily drying.

Jenson Button was the first championship contender to falter, failing to make it through to Q2. The reigning world champion qualifies eleventh – and will need a miracle to keep his title hopes alive tomorrow. Kamui Kobayashi will start twelfth with Nico Rosberg and Jaime Alguersuari thirteenth and fourteenth. Sebastien Buemi qualified fifteenth but, like Adrian Sutil, has a five-place grid penalty hanging over him from Korea. Nick Heidfeld and Tonio Liuzzi were sixteenth and seventeenth.

At the front, the two Red Bull drivers, led by Webber, topped the timesheets. Michael Schumacher put in a good lap to finish Q2 in fifth, and Fernando Alonso was only seventh. Felipe Massa snuck into Q3 by just one tenth of a second.

Alonso signalled his intentions of grabbing pole by being first out of the garage as Q3 got underway. The Spaniard's tendency to cool the intermediate tyres in standing water suggested that the track was becoming dryer, but nobody chose to venture out on slick tyres to begin with.

However, it appeared that drivers were being over cautious and, after struggling for a few flying laps on intermediate tyres, everybody dived back into the pits for the Bridgestone dry soft tyre. With just under half of the session to go, pole position would go to whoever could find the most grip on the damp track.

Robert Kubica was the first to adopt dry tyres, and his first flying lap was underwhelming. He spun off the track (but recovered) on his second attempt but by this time Lewis Hamilton was beginning to put in purple sectors.

Nico Hulkenberg put in the first really quick lap on dry tyres although Hamilton beat this time on his next lap. Alonso then flew over the line to appear top, but Hulkenberg snatched provisional pole back from him almost immediately.

And that was where Hulkenberg stayed. Hamilton could not take pole position back on his final flying lap, and Vettel, Webber and Alonso all failed to beat Hulkenberg's time with their last attempts. In fact, the only person to beat his provisional pole position time was Hulkenberg himself – the German rookies' final lap was almost a second quicker than his previous best.