McLaren lost on and off the track on Saturday after Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen were penalised five grid places and title rival Ferrari took pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Felipe Massa claimed pole ahead of teammate Kimi Raikkonen, and the news got even better for the Italian team when a race stewards' investigation found McLaren guilty of causing interference during qualifying for Sunday's race.
Kovalainen had qualified third and Hamilton fourth, but the penalty moves them back to eighth and ninth respectively. Ferrari needs to make up ground on McLaren after a dismal start to the season in Australia last week, collecting just one championship point against McLaren's 14.
The penalty for McLaren came after BMW Sauber driver Nick Heidfeld and Renault's Fernando Alonso were impeded in the closing seconds of qualifying as the McLarens cruised slowly on the racing line, having completed their sequence of quick laps. Heidfeld and Alonso were on their last flying laps and attempting to set a qualifying time. Heidfeld, who qualified seventh, said the interference cost him third spot. Alonso acknowledged he had little chance of qualifying higher than the ninth spot where he ended up, regardless of the interference.
The McLaren penalty meant Toyota's Jarno Trulli was elevated to third place on the grid, behind the two Ferraris, followed by the BMW Sauber pair of Robert Kubica and Heidfeld.
Red Bull's Mark Webber was moved up to sixth and Alonso seventh. In tactical terms, the penalty was a significant boost for Ferrari as it now has five slower cars between its drivers and the McLaren pair. McLaren is unable to change its race strategy to reflect the lower grid slots, as its cars must start with the fuel loads with which they finished qualifying.
McLaren was also hoping to avoid any controversy this year following a tumultuous last season when the team was disqualified from the constructors' championship and received a record fine over possession of confidential Ferrari technical documents. The incident also refreshed the rivalry between Hamilton and Alonso, with the double world champion having left the team in the offseason after a single season at McLaren. Alonso had made no secret of his unhappiness with his treatment compared to Hamilton. Despite the grid penalties, McLaren is not out of the equation for Sunday's race. The Sepang circuit is very broad, presenting multiple passing opportunities. Rain, which has been torrential in past Malaysian GPs, is also forecast, which may offset any grid advantages.
Even prior to the grid penalties, Sepang was shaping as Ferrari's weekend with the Maranello outfit consistently looking the best in practice and then qualifying.
Ferrari had a terrible season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last Sunday when a faulty fuel intake valve meant neither of its cars finished. Aside from early practice when Raikkonen ran out of fuel after a lap miscalculation, there has been no hint of such problems in Malaysia.
It is the second straight year Massa has claimed pole at Sepang, with his qualifying time of 1:35.748 almost half a second ahead of Raikkonen, suggesting the Brazilian was running a lighter fuel load and will pit earlier in Sunday's race.
"Our championship is starting now," Massa said after qualifying. "What happened in the last race was incredible. Now we can manage to put everything together to have a very consistent, good and quick championship."
Kovalainen accepted that Ferrari had a superior pace. "We had nothing more to give, third place was the best we could achieve today," said Kovalainen, before the grid demotion. "We didn't see the true pace of Ferrari in Melbourne. This is more representative a read between the pace of the teams. "By no means the game is over. It's a case of attacking and see what we can do."
Saturday was a poor day for Williams, which had collected a third place in Melbourne.
Nico Rosberg had a hydraulic leakage in pre-qualifying practice and then was only 16th in the main session, while teammate Kazuki Nakajima will start from the back of the grid after carrying over a 10-place penalty for causing a crash behind the safety car in Australia.
Red Bull's David Coulthard qualified in 12th, having received a late clearance by stewards to take part on Saturday after crashing during opening practice on Friday, with his front suspension destroyed by the impact with a curb. The team and race stewards examined a car that had shown signs of unusual fragility in the first two races of the season.
In session two of qualifying, where cars generally run at their quickest with low fuel loads, both Ferraris bettered the race lap record time that has stood since 2004, becoming the only cars of the weekend to drop below 1:35.00.