Sebastian Vettel produced a brilliant last-gasp lap to snatch pole position away from Fernando Alonso and resurgent Ferrari by the very narrowest of margins for his home German Grand Prix.
Alonso had looked set to end Ferrari’s long wait for a pole – which stretches back to the final round of 2008 – after impressively topping the first two qualifying segments and then setting the pace in the early Q3 forays.
However, a pumped-up Vettel was not going to let his bid for a first German GP pole go without a fight and found some extra speed on his final run to move ahead on a 1m13.791s.
Alonso, behind him on the road, also improved on his final lap but agonisingly fell a mere 0.002s short of delivering his first pole for Ferrari and becoming just the second non Red Bull driver to start at the front this year.
Nevertheless it secured the Spaniard’s first front-row of the season and the F10's pace throughout the weekend so far will give him confidence that he can take the fight to Vettel in the race.
Indeed Ferrari’s improved form was underlined by Felipe Massa who put his recent qualifying difficulties behind him to take third, albeit it some half a second down on the top two.
Mark Webber had trailed Vettel by several tenths through the first two stages and ultimately blew his attempts to get into the pole mix when he ran wide at the first corner on his final lap, meaning he ended up fourth.
McLaren’s practice form had suggested it was trailing both its two main rivals on outright pace and that’s how things played out in qualifying as it could do no better than the third row – although Jenson Button will no doubt take some heart from getting back ahead of team-mate and title leader Lewis Hamilton for the first time since China.
Robert Kubica edged a tight battle behind the top three teams to secure his now customary seventh place on the grid for Renault, while Williams’s resurgence continued as both Rubens Barrichello (eighth) and Nico Hulkenberg (10th) made the top 10 again.
Mercedes’s practice form had appeared to indicate the German squad could even challenge McLaren for positions on the grid, but reminiscent of Canada and Valencia, its pace went awry on Saturday afternoon yet again and it could do no better than ninth with Nico Rosberg.
Indeed like at those two recent races, Michael Schumacher failed to make it into Q3 on his return to Hockenheim – although had he produced a lap just 0.009s quicker he would have been in the top 10 at the expense of his team-mate.
Schumacher will be joined on the sixth row by Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) who wrecked his chances of making Q3 when he ran wide at the first corner on his final lap.
The under-pressure Vitaly Petrov again couldn’t follow Renault team-mate Kubica into the final stage and will start 13th ahead of the other Sauber of Pedro de la Rosa.
The Toro Rosso pair of Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi will start directly behind, the former doing well to outpace his Swiss stable-mate for just the second time this season having never previously driven at Hockenheim.
Adrian Sutil did set the 14th-fastest time for Force India but will drop down to 19th after a driveshaft failure in final practice necessitated a gearbox change and resulted in the mandatory five-place penalty.
He will join team-mate Tonio Liuzzi towards the back of the field after the Italian’s qualifying woes continued as he dropped out in Q1 for the third time this season – although this time it was a mistake, rather than a lack of speed, that did for him after he crashed heavily into the pit wall.
Coming round the final corner to complete his second timed lap, he ran wide over the kerb and onto the still damp Astroturf which spun the back of his VJM03 around and he slithered across the track and into a nasty frontal impact with the wall.
The impact ripped off the car’s front suspension and its front-left tyre, which only rolled back across the track just in front of Timo Glock’s Virgin before coming to rest on the grass.
Liuzzi’s demise allowed several of the backmarkers to qualify one place further up than normal and Lotus’s Jarno Trulli was the one to make the most of that opportunity as he comfortably outpaced his nearest rivals by over 0.7s to head the new teams’ class.
His team-mate Heikki Kovalainen nevertheless managed to sneak ahead of Virgin lead driver Timo Glock, while Bruno Senna did a commendable job on his return to the Hispania race seat to qualify within 0.3s of the pair.
Glock will drop behind both Hispanias and Liuzzi to the back of the grid as he picked up a five-place penalty for a gearbox change after final practice, where he will join team-mate Lucas di Grassi who was unable to set a timed lap.
German GP starting grid
1 VETTEL Red Bull
2 ALONSO Ferrari
3 MASSA Ferrari
4 WEBBER Red Bull
5 BUTTON McLaren
6 HAMILTON McLaren
7 KUBICA Renault
8 BARRICHELLO Williams
9 ROSBERG Mercedes
10 HULKENBERG Williams
11 SCHUMACHER Mercedes
12 KOBAYASHI Sauber
13 PETROV Renault
14 DE LA ROSA Sauber
15 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso
16 BUEMI Toro Rosso
17 TRULLI Lotus
18 KOVALAINEN Lotus
19 SUTIL Force India*
20 SENNA HRT
21 LIUZZI Force India
22 YAMAMOTO HRT
23 DI GRASSI Virgin
24 GLOCK Virgin*
* penalised 5 places for gearbox change