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Hamilton seizes pole in Malaysia

SEPANG, Malaysia, March 24 – Lewis Hamilton seized pole position Saturday in a breath-takingly close qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix, as McLaren maintained their dominance of the new Formula One season.

In spite of a last-corner wheel-spin, the 2008 world champion timed a lightning 1min 36.219sec lap at the start of the final qualifying shoot-out to shade it from team-mate Jenson Button and German great Michael Schumacher.

McLaren have now led in qualifying for the first two races after Hamilton also led a one-two last week in Australia, before finishing the grand prix third behind team-mate Button and current world champion Sebastian Vettel.

But in an indication of the tiny margins separating Formula One’s best teams this year, the top eight drivers were separated by only four-tenths of a second on a steamy afternoon at the Sepang circuit.

Red Bull’s Mark Webber was fourth fastest and Kimi Raikkonen was fifth, but the 2007 world champion was penalised five places for a gearbox change — promoting sixth-placed Vettel one spot on the starting grid.

Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Sauber’s Mexican pilot Sergio Perez will occupy the next slots, with Raikkonen dropping to 10th.

“It’s been a good weekend so far. It’s been a tough day with the changing weather conditions and the temperatures climbing,” said Hamilton. “We made some changes to the car but we still managed to do some good times.”

As forecast rains held off, Red Bull’s Webber nabbed the top time in the dying seconds of the first 20-minute qualifying segment, in which Ferrari’s Massa flirted with elimination before recovering to scrape through.

And in Q2, seven-time world champion Schumacher left it until his very last lap before climbing from 11th to fourth. Raikkonen was quickest but there was no top-10 shoot-out for the embattled Massa, who wound up 12th.

In a thrilling Q3, Raikkonen, Button and Hamilton outpaced each other in quick succession at the top of the standings and with two minutes remaining, Schumacher’s challenge fell agonisingly short of the front row.

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“It’s good for us as a team to be on the front row again,” Button said. “You want it to be the other way round as well but Lewis did a great lap at the start of Q3. We edged closer but couldn’t quite get there.”

Schumacher said his Mercedes team had squeezed every ounce of performance from their car, whose innovative ‘W-duct’ rear wing has been a source of technical controversy.

“This was the maximum that was available,” Schumacher said. “If you look who’s behind us and how close everything is going we can be more than happy with what we achieved.”

This year’s Formula One series features an unprecedented six former world champions, with Vettel, 24, bidding to become only the third driver in the sport’s history to win three titles in a row.

Five of the six world title-winners have been victorious at Sepang, a fast circuit known for its strength-sapping humidity and frequent heavy rain. Vettel won the 2010 and 2011 races.

Meanwhile Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen will start at the back of the pack after being slapped with a five-place penalty for overtaking under the safety car at last week’s Australian Grand Prix.

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