Sepang, Malaysia: Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel believes he can end Mercedes' dominant run in Formula One by winning Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix after qualifying second on Saturday and ending the Silver Arrows' long run of front-row lockouts.
Mercedes had taken the front two grid spots for the past nine races dating back to last season, but that ended on a rain-swept qualifying session at Sepang International Circuit as Vettel split the Mercedes cars and came within seven hundredths of a second of beating Hamilton to pole.
While Mercedes took pole for the 13th successive race, Vettel showed it might be possible to change the script on race day.
Asked if he believes he can win, Vettel replied: "I think yes we can."
"It will be very tight. It would be nice to give them (Mercedes) a hard time; it has been a little too chilled for them for the last couple of months," Vettel said. "There is rain in the air and if it hits the track at the right moment it can be good for you, but it can also work against you. Our pace looks decent, but we have to be realistic, Mercedes have an advantage and that hasn't just disappeared."
Hamilton will start a firm favorite, as he has converted his past seven pole positions into victories and has the best car beneath him. Saturday's performance delivered his 40th pole position, becoming the fourth man to reach that mark after Michael Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Vettel.
Hamilton's first lap in the treacherous wet conditions blew the field away, as he was more than a second ahead of Rosberg and two ahead of Vettel. Though they made up ground on subsequent laps, it was not enough to beat that initial time by the Briton, who took pole despite being temporarily blocked by Rosberg on his second flying lap.
"The first lap was quite good," an understated Hamilton said. "It's always difficult because none of us had driven a lap this weekend in the wet. The first lap is just the unknown and you don't want to take too much risk.
"It is going to be a hard race, being earlier (than qualifying) it is going to be hotter and a bit tougher on the tires."
Rosberg made no excuses for his third place and again being overshadowed by Hamilton, as he was in the season opener in Australia, and for the second half of last season as the Briton claimed the championship.
"I just didn't drive well enough and I'm annoyed by that, third place is not good enough for tomorrow," Rosberg said. "The clean side of the grid should definitely help me get past Sebastian."
A drenching thunderstorm arrived early in the second sector of qualifying, with Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen the main victim as he was in 11th when the rain came and did not have an opportunity to improve as the track was quickly soaked. The final part of qualifying was delayed for 15 minutes while the tropical storm subsided.
Red Bull profited from the rain, with Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat qualifying fourth and fifth respectively, which was better than they could have expected in dry conditions.
Toro Rosso's 17-year-old rookie Max Verstappen was an impressive sixth; the best qualifying performance by a teenager for 54 years.
Williams, which struggled in wet conditions last year, again dropped down the order. Felipe Massa qualified seventh and Valtteri Bottas in ninth, but the Finn moves up to eighth because Romain Grosjean was dropped to 10th as a penalty for infringement of pit-lane regulations. Sauber's Marcus Ericsson moved up from 10th to ninth.
McLaren was predictably well off the pace and failed to make it out of Q1 as the team struggles with its new Honda engine. Jenson Button qualified 17th and Fernando Alonso 18th.
They were ahead of only the Manor team. Roberto Mehri qualified 19th and Will Stevens did not participate due to a fuel pressure problem. Though neither was within the required seven percent of the pole time to allow them to race, they received dispensation from stewards due to decent times in practice, and will compete on Sunday.