World championship rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso will start from the front row in Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix, after the Finn beat the Spaniard by a hair over four-tenths of a second. But where Alonso’s McLaren partner Lewis Hamilton backed him strongly with a second-row start on his debut, Felipe Massa was only 16th after suffering gearbox problems.

In a session run under warm sun and on a bone-dry track, Raikkonen set the pace in first qualifying, was content to let Alonso do so in the second, and then banged in the 1m 26.072s lap that secured him the pole in the third and final runs. He thus became the first debutant Ferrari driver to take pole position since Juan Manuel Fangio back in 1956.

“Today we spent time getting a good set-up on car,” Raikkonen said. “For one lap it was still not ideal, not for me at least, but the main thing is it was quick enough. We have a good race package, so I am more confident for the race than for qualifying. This can be quite a funny race, but we’ll do our best and hope to win.”

Having been obliged to play second fiddle most of the weekend to Hamilton, Alonso pulled up in the final session with a lap of 1m 26.493s to depose the impressive young Briton, who also found himself pushed down a place by speedy Nick Heidfeld in the BMW Sauber. Hamilton lapped in 1m 26.755s, completing another session devoid of mistakes, but dropped to fourth when the German took his F1.07 round in 1m 26.556s right at the end.

Alonso said he was still building his confidence in the car, and added: “I think at end we are there and to start where we are is fantastic news for the team. They have made a huge step forward since last year and we need say thanks to team. I really hope it will be a close race tomorrow, and it can be very interesting; we have been very competitive all weekend.”

Robert Kubica’s chances of improving on 1m 27.347s in the BMW Sauber were stymied by a mistake on his final run, leaving him fifth ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella, who did no better than 1m 27.634s for the hitherto dominant Renault.

Mark Webber boosted the crowd (and himself) with seventh-fastest time in his Red Bull, after a lap in 1m 27.934s, then, against expectations, came the Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher on 1m 28.404s and 1m 28.692s respectively. Both of them had initial dramas: Trulli inadvertently dragged a jack all down the pit lane and then on to the track when he first went out, for which the team were subsequently fined €2000; Schumacher had a tyre problem and had to creep back to the pits before getting going again.

While they celebrated getting into the top ten, Takuma Sato was cock-a-hoop down at Super Aguri. A year ago the team had to borrow a show car from a local mall to make the race; 12 months on they made the top five rows on merit after a great performance yielded a best lap of 1m 28.871s. If there was anything bittersweet about the success, it was that Super Aguri team mate Anthony Davidson just failed to get through to the third session, but he will line up as second-fastest Briton in 11th place with a lap of 1m 26.909s. Nico Rosberg will be alongside him in the Williams with 1m 26.914s, followed by debutant Heikki Kovalainen in the second Renault on 1m 26.964s. He shares row seven with a very despondent Jenson Button, who did all he could to squeeze a disappointing 1m 27.264s out of his Honda.

Alex Wurz lapped his Williams in 1m 27.393s for 15th, while poor Felipe Massa had a gearbox problem in the second session and will start 16th for Ferrari with no recorded lap time.

The first session weeded out the second Red Bull, both Toro Rossos, both Spykers and Rubens Barrichello’s Honda. The Brazilian lapped in 1m 27.679s which left him 17th ahead of an on-form Scott Speed (1m 27.305s), David Coulthard (1m 27.579s), a troubled Tonio Liuzzi (1m 29.267s, before a defective refuelling rig prevented him getting enough juice for his second run), debutant Adrian Sutil (1m 29.339s) and Christijan Albers (1m 31.932s).

Thus the grid is set for the opening race of 2007, and a terrific battle is in prospect. If anything happens to Raikkonen or Alonso, could Hamilton become the first man since Giancarlo Baghetti back in 1961 to win on his debut?