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Ferraris occupy the front row

Five place penalties for McLaren’s Hamilton and Kovalainen

— Photo: AP

IMPROVED PERFORMANCE: Ferrari’s Felipe Massa took pole position on Sunday to boost his team’s morale after its dismal show in Australia at the last race.

SEPANG (Malaysia): Brazilian Felipe Massa led a Ferrari front row sweep in the Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday while McLaren’s championship leader Lewis Hamilton was demoted to ninth place for impeding rivals.

Massa secured the 10th pole position of his career ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen to revive Ferrari’s morale after a dismal start to the season in Australia last weekend.

“Our championship starts now because what happened in the last race was incredible,” said Massa, who also started on pole at Sepang last year.

While the Italian team set the pace, stewards handed Hamilton and Finnish teammate Heikki Kovalainen five place penalties after the pair had qualified together on the second row.

Kovalainen starts eighth

Kovalainen will now be eighth on the starting grid for what could be a wet and treacherous race, with 23-year-old Hamilton behind him in ninth place.

“We accept the stewards’ decision but would like to add that neither Lewis nor Heikki impeded any of the competitors deliberately,” said McLaren chief executive Martin Whitmarsh.

“It was an unfortunate incident — nothing more, nothing less — and we look forward to Sunday’s race.”

Italian Jarno Trulli, in a Toyota, and Poland’s Robert Kubica in a BMW-Sauber moved up to take the third and fourth slots.

Driving in hot and humid conditions under heavy cloud cover, Massa lapped 0.482 seconds quicker than Raikkonen.

Ferrari had been in imperious form here and its front row sweep was the team’s first since last September’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Raikkonen disappointed

Raikkonen was still disappointed with his performance after setting the fastest time of the weekend in the second session. “I was not too happy with the last session of qualifying,” said the Finn. “I just could not get a good grip or the best out of the car. But second is a good place to start and we should have a strong race.

Hamilton, winner in Melbourne but out-qualified by his new Finnish teammate for the first time, will struggle to repeat last year’s second place.

“We changed some things today and I’m not really sure whether it was the right way to go or not but we’ll see tomorrow,” said the Briton, who had not been off the front row since Belgium last year.

Last year’s race winner Fernando Alonso, Spain’s double world champion who has returned to Renault after a difficult year alongside Hamilton at McLaren, was one of those who protested about the McLarens and will start seventh.

Germany’s Nick Heidfeld, for BMW Sauber, moved up to fifth while Australian Mark Webber of Red Bull will start sixth.

Rain threat

Rain threatened throughout the session on Saturday, but there were only a few spots. There was rain forecast for race day on Sunday too.

Those eliminated in the second session were Williams’ Nico Rosberg — who had a hydraulic leak in Saturday’s practice — the Honda pair of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, Renault’s Nelson Piquet Jr. and Red Bull’s David Coulthard.

Those knocked out in the first qualifying session were Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidsion of Super Aguris, the Force India pair Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil, along with Sebastien Bourdais of Toro Rosso and Kazuki Nakajima of Williams.

The starting grid: 1. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), 2. Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari), 3. Jarno Trulli (Toyota), 4. Robert Kubica (BMW-Sauber), 5. Nick Heidfeld (BMW-Sauber), 6. Mark Webber (Red Bull), 7. Fernando Alonso (Renault), 8. Heikki Kovalainen (McLaren), 9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), 10. Timo Glock (Toyota), 11. Jenson Button (Honda), 12. David Coulthard (Red Bull), 13. Nelson Piquet (Renault), 14. Rubens Barrichello (Honda), 15. Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso), 16. Nico Rosberg (Williams), 17. Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India), 18. Sebastien Bourdais (Toro Rosso), 19. Takuma Sato (Super Aguri), 20. Adrian Sutil (Force India), 21. Anthony Davidson (Super Aguri), 22. Kazuki Nakajima (Williams). — Agencies

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