SAKHIR, Bahrain — Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull will start Formula One’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix from pole position, while Michael Schumacher will start in seventh place in his comeback with Mercedes.
Vettel set a fastest time of 1 minute, 54.101 seconds on Saturday to edge Ferrari pair Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, who have both won at the desert track.
Lewis Hamilton of McLaren will start fourth ahead of Nico Rosberg of Mercedes and Red Bull driver Mark Webber.
Seven-time champion Schumacher, racing for the first time in three years, was 1.423 seconds off of Vettel’s pace, but edged ahead of defending champion Jenson Button in eighth for McLaren.
“I just have to get into it,” said Schumacher, who will start from the same position he did on his debut at Belgium in 1991. “It’s challenging and that’s a good thing.”
Red Bull had tested less than its competitors but predictions of the Austrian car’s speed were confirmed as Vettel edged Massa — racing for the first time since a near-fatal crash in July — by just over one-tenth of a second and Alonso by half a second.
“It was a big surprise,” said Vettel, who is going for win No. 6 from a sixth career pole. “Yesterday, I have to admit we were not very happy. I knew there was potential in the car, we just had to put it together. It was really close.”
Ferrari was buoyed by the results as it looks to make a strong start after taking only one point from the past two opening races at Melbourne.
“If you look at what happened last season with us, it’s a good start to the season,” Massa said. “I’m here 100 percent and ready to fight. After watching on TV, it’s much nicer to be back in the car.”
Alonso was happy to be back in the top three and the 2005 and 2006 Bahrain winner said he was not disappointed after looking strong all winter.
“It’s such a long lap and the conditions — it’s such a warm condition — it’s very difficult to complete that lap without any mistakes or problems,” he said of the course, which has been lengthened by 0.62 miles. “So far, everything has been great. This is a big boost for the team.”
Schumacher and Button both squeezed into the final qualifying session following quick final laps in the second elimination stint, but Williams and Sauber both missed out.
However, the final result proved disappointing for both former champions, who have triumphed here before — Schumacher in 2004 and Button last year for Brawn GP, which turned into Mercedes.
On Friday, the 41-year-old Schumacher said he was still feeling rusty and still looking for his rhythm.
“A podium is not unrealistic but it’s going to be tough,” Schumacher said. He added it was “probably going to be easier for (Rosberg) than for me” to finish in the top three.
Button did not hide his frustration as he finished more than 1.5 seconds behind Vettel.
“It’s a big margin — a huge chunk. I’m a little bit surprised that they were that quick,” Button said. “But there’s still a little bit of pace to be had in the car. The good news is there are still issues we can solve for tomorrow — it’s not over yet.”
Most teams went all out only on their final laps because the top 10 must use exactly the same set-up on Sunday. Alonso called the changes — which include a ban on refueling — “unknown territory.”
“This year the challenge is not attacking and pushing every lap to go as fast as you can,” said Vettel, who was runner-up to Button last year. “It’s not going to be a sprint tomorrow, it’s going to be an endurance competition. So you have to take care of your tires.”
Robert Kubica of Renault will start ninth while Force India’s Adrian Sutil goes from 10th on the 24-car grid.
Timo Glock of Virgin Racing was fastest of the three new teams, none of which advanced from the first qualifying session.
Karun Chandhok will be on the grid Sunday. Hispania Racing got the Indian driver’s car ready after failing to make it on the circuit for the three practice sessions.