(CNN) -- Lewis Hamilton had a 2011 season to forget, but the former world champion showed on Saturday that he and McLaren teammate Jenson Button are ready to challenge Red Bull's Formula One supremacy.
The British driver headed off his fellow former world champion to claim pole position for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, the opening race of the new campaign.
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel, seeking to become the third driver in F1 history to win three successive world titles, was back in sixth -- a place behind his teammate Mark Webber.
French driver Romain Grosjean was surprisingly third for Lotus, outshining teammate Kimi Raikkonen. Much was expected of the 2007 world champion's return to the grid, but the Finn did not get past the first stage of qualifying.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher followed up his promising practice efforts from Friday by claiming fourth for Mercedes, with teammate Nico Rosberg seventh.
Ferrari's preseason problems translated into a bad day for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and 2008 runner-up Felipe Massa, neither of whom reached the third and final session -- qualifying 12th and 16th respectively.
Hamilton was runner-up to Vettel in Melbourne last year, but claimed only one pole position all season -- in South Korea -- as he struggled to fifth overall due to a mix of off-track personal issues and on-circuit problems.
"It's an incredible feeling to be back here and to get off to such a good start. I think this is mine and Jenson's first one-two -- I believe at least -- in qualifying, so it's fantastic to start the season this way," he told reporters after setting a final time of one minute 24.922 seconds to earn the 20th pole of his career.
Button won the race in 2009 when he was world champion with Brawn GP and then again in his first season at McLaren, but was only sixth last season before going on to be runner-up in the championship.
"Congratulations to Lewis and the whole team. I think we have done a very good job this winter and I think we have proved that today," the 32-year-old said after clocking 1:25.074.
"I was actually a bit surprised by the gap back to the Red Bulls and some of the other teams but, yeah, we'll definitely take that."
Red Bull started first on the grid for 18 of last year's 19 races, but the early indications are that this season will be closer as teams adapt to a raft of rule changes.
Vettel's time of 1:25.668 was more than half a second slower than Hamilton, while Webber clocked 1:25.61 as the 35-year-old -- victorious in the last race of 2011 in Brazil -- seeks his first win on his home circuit.
"We would have loved to have been closer to the front, but in Q3 I wasn't happy with my lap," the German said. "I made a mistake at the beginning and lost some time, so that was down to me.
"I could have been one or two places higher, but that's how it goes. We are not starting at the front, but we are not starting at the back either, so it's far from disastrous and regarding the car we know what we need to do."
F1's official website reported that Red Bull and Lotus are considering an appeal against Mercedes' new F-duct rear wing, which supposedly channels air along the side of the car to improve straight-line speed performance.
HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan will not take part in Sunday's race after failing to set times that satisfied F1's 107% rule (in relation to the quickest lap) in Q1. The Spanish team also failed to take part in last year's opening race.
1. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 1:24.922
2. Jenson Button (McLaren) 1:25.074
3. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) 1:25.302
4. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) 1:25.336
5. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 1:25.651
6. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1:25.668
7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:25.686
8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams) Williams 1:25.908
9. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) 1:26.451
10. Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) Did not set a time