Fernando Alonso put Michael Schumacher and his new Ferrari in the shade by setting the fastest time in first qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Renault driver, who leads the world championship, set a blistering lap of one minute 29.848seconds in scorching heat at Sakhir.
That gave the Spaniard the advantage going into tomorrow’s final qualifying, after which the times are aggregated to determine the grid.
Jarno Trulli emphasised Toyota’s massive improvement by taking second place, just 0.145secs down, as Schumacher had to make do with third,
Schumacher’s first competitive lap in his 2005 Ferrari showed a significant improvement on his speed in the opening two races.
The world champion, who has just two points to his name so far this season, had Ferrari’s new car at his disposal after the team rushed it into action two races ahead of schedule.
It was significantly quicker than its predecessor, although there was no hint of last season’s complete dominance as Schumacher finished 0.389secs down on provisional pole position.
Nick Heidfeld was a fine fourth for Williams with Giancarlo Fisichella giving Renault fifth spot.
Mark Webber was sixth for Williams but Jenson Button suffered another disappointment. Two weeks after BAR’s double third-lap retirement in Malaysia, Button suffered on the dusty track and took 12th place.
Britain’s other hope, David Coulthard, also endured a difficult session and trailed home in 14th for Red Bull.
Pedro de la Rosa was first out after three years away from competitive Formula One action and the McLaren driver clocked a clean lap as temperatures at Sakhir broke through the 40-degree barrier for the first time this weekend.
BAR’s double engine failure in Malaysia consigned both Takuma Sato and Button to going out early on the dusty track, inadvertently cleaning the surface for their rivals.
Sato fell short of de la Rosa’s marker and Button did little better, although he at least outpaced his team-mate.
Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve, under increasing pressure after a poor start to life at Sauber, lost time on his lap when running wide at the final turn as he continues to struggle with his car’s handling.
The Canadian ended the session 16th, a massive 1.4secs slower than team-mate Felipe Massa.
Webber had set the fastest time ever at Sakhir in practice and the Williams driver continued that good form by bettering de la Rosa’s effort.
His time at the top was fleeting though as Fisichella once again showed Renault’s improved pace this season.
Rubens Barrichello has turned just five laps this weekend due to gearbox trouble and that lack of practice showed when he locked a brake and lost time in turn one on his qualifying run. The Ferrari driver ended up 15th.
Massa threatened to spring a surprise but a disappointing second sector of his lap let him down.
Raikkonen suffered a similar fate, with the last third of his lap undoing some good early work.
Schumacher showed the pair how to do it and went clear at the top before brother Ralf spoiled his lap by running wide in his Toyota. The other Toyota of Trulli did a better job though and knocked both Schumachers down a spot before Alonso’s last-lap heroics.
1 Fernando Alonso (Spa) Renault 1min 29.848secs,
2 Jarno Trulli (Ita) Toyota 1:29.993,
3 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:30.237,
4 Nick Heidfeld (Ger) Williams BMW 1:30.390,
5 Giancarlo Fisichella (Ita) Renault 1:30.445,
6 Mark Webber (Aus) Williams BMW 1:30.592,
7 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren Mercedes 1:30.594,
8 Christian Klien (Aut) Red Bull 1:30.646,
9 Pedro de la Rosa (Spa) McLaren Mercedes 1:30.725,
10 Felipe Massa (Bra) Sauber Petronas 1:30.933,
11 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) Toyota 1:30.952,
12 Jenson Button (Gbr) BAR Honda 1:30.957,
13 Takuma Sato (Jpn) BAR Honda 1:31.113,
14 David Coulthard (Gbr) Red Bull 1:31.211,
15 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:31.826,
16 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) Sauber Petronas 1:32.318,
17 Narain Karthikeyan (Ind) Jordan Toyota 1:33.190,
18 Tiago Monteiro (Por) Jordan Toyota 1:33.424,
19 Christijan Albers (Ned) Minardi Cosworth 1:34.005,
20 Patrick Friesacher (Ger) Minardi Cosworth 1:34.848