Lewis Hamilton led a McLaren 1-2 in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix as Red Bull's feared dominance failed to materialise. Through the earlier knockout sessions, Mercedes looked to have the edge while Red Bull played it cool but McLaren had the pace when it mattered to secure their first front row lock-out in two and a half years.
Hamilton laid down a marker immediately in Q3 with a 1:24.922, a time that he couldn't beat himself, so he was forced to wait for his rivals to stake their claim for pole position. Nico Rosberg made a costly error at turn 14 while Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher were neck-and neck behind.
Schumacher grabbed a place on the front row only for Button to snatch it away from him but almost unnoticed, Romain Grosjean leaped up to third for Lotus, a heroic effort on his return to Formula One, especially given the shock exit of his teammate Kimi Raikkonen in Q1.
That knocked Schumacher down to fourth but the expected Red Bull challenge never came, with Mark Webber outpacing Sebastian Vettel for fifth with the German beginning his title defence from sixth. Rosberg's error left him down in seventh while Pastor Maldonado, Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo put in impressive performances to qualify in the top ten.
Ferrari's miserable start to the season hit a new low as Fernando Alonso, their only realistic hope of getting into Q3, spun off during the second session. The double world champion followed the likes of Vettel and Felipe Massa earlier in the weekend and strayed onto the grass as he hit the brakes. The irate Spaniard was fifth when he backed into the turn one gravel trap but the subsequent improvements from other drivers bumped him down to 12th, with Massa four places further back.
Jean-Eric Vergne will line up for his first grand prix in 11th, alongside Alonso, with Q1 pacesetter Kamui Kobayashi 13th ahead of Bruno Senna. Paul Di Resta qualified a disappointing 15th with only Massa and Sergio Perez behind him in Q2, the latter having failed to set a time.
Raikkonen's exit in Q1 came after a crucial mistake on his final flying lap. The Finn ran wide on the exit of turn 12 and missed out on an extra flying lap by a matter of seconds, leaving him stranded in 18th. Caterham and Marussia will fill the back two rows with HRT set to miss the race after both Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan, who spent much of the session blocking others, failed to beat the 107% time.