- Only one of three qualifying sessions possible in Melbourne on Saturday
- The other two will start six hours before Sunday's season-opening race
- Mercedes' Nico Rosberg sets the fastest time ahead of Fernando Alonso
- Williams' Pastor Maldonado among the six drivers to be eliminated early
It was supposed to be the start of motorsport's elite competition for 2013, but the stars of Formula One were left skidding about the rain-lashed Melbourne track like novice drivers.
Saturday's qualifying was curtailed after the opening session, meaning the other two will now be held just a few hours ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The last time qualifying has been so badly affected was at Suzuka in Japan in 2010, when all three sessions were moved to Sunday.
"For us drivers, it means we have to build ourselves up for the challenge of qualifying again and again -- a bit like asking Usain Bolt to get ready for five 100-meter sprints one after the other and aborting four of them," said McLaren's Jenson Button, who won at Albert Park last year.
"That level of disruption creates quite a lot of mental and psychological stress for any athlete, but it was even worse for the fans, who'd been waiting excitedly for qualifying all day long and who then had to sit in the pouring rain with no on-track action to entertain them."
There were still plenty of incidents as Felipe Massa spun and hit a wall, losing a front wing from his Ferrari. A similar fate befell Caterham rookie Giedo van der Garde, his teammate Charles Pic and Sauber's newcomer Esteban Gutierrez, who went over a curb with his rear wheel.
The Mexican missed out on the second stage of qualifying along with the Caterham duo, Marussia rookies Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton, plus Pastor Maldonado-- a race winner last year -- who also went off-road and later described his Williams as "undriveable."
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg set the quickest time of one minute 43.380 seconds -- a second slower than triple world champion Sebastian Vettel's fastest efforts from Friday practice as none of the drivers had the chance to use Pirelli's new supersoft compound tires due to the wet conditions.
Rosberg's new teammate Lewis Hamilton was back in 10th, as the 2008 world champion managed to complete the session despite hitting a barrier -- extricating himself from the grass as he tentatively reversed back onto the track.
Last season's championship runnerup Fernando Alonso was second fastest for Ferrari.
"It's a shame that qualifying has been put back," the two-time world champion said, "but it was the right decision given the track conditions, especially as the white lines were really too slippery."
Massa was happy to finish sixth, ahead of Vettel and Button but behind Red Bull's Mark Webber, fourth-placed Sergio Perez of McLaren and third-placed Romain Grosjean of Lotus.
"In my whole career, I've never managed to get back on track after such a heavy impact and I'm really happy to still be in the hunt for qualifying," the Brazilian said.
"Other drivers were in similarly risky positions, so I fully approve of the decision taken by the stewards. In the dry, we are up there with the best, now we must sort out fixing the damaged parts."
Grosjean's teammate Kimi Raikkonen, third overall last season, was back in 11th ahead of Force India's Paul di Resta -- who like veteran Australian Webber also went off the track and into the grass verge.
"It wasn't easy with the traffic, people going off and the yellow flags but we went through to the second qualifying session tomorrow so it's not all bad," said 2007 world champion Raikkonen.