Rain began to fall shortly before qualifying got under way yesterday and McLaren decided to delay sending out their drivers in the belief it would soon subside. It proved a costly error of judgment as the downpour began to get stronger and once they eventually took to the Sepang circuit, Button compounded matters by spinning onto the gravel to bring a premature end to his session, while Hamilton failed to find the pace he needed to progress to the second stage of qualifying.
That meant they lined up towards the back of the grid, with Button 17th and Hamilton 20th while Red Bull once again dominated the session with Mark Webber on pole and Sebastian Vettel lining up third on the grid. Fortunately for the McLaren pair, Ferrari also waited too long to attempt quick laps and consequently Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were due to start from 19th and 21st respectively.
Victory from the back is not unknown for McLaren after former driver Kimi Raikkonen climbed from 17th to win the Japanese Grand Prix five years ago and Hamilton was confident he and Button could be competitive today.
"We had performed pretty well all weekend and it was just unfortunate in qualifying," said the 25-year-old. "It is easy to say in hindsight we could have gone out earlier but who is to say whether it was going to rain or not?
"It is unfortunate. Being 20th is not the place to be and it makes it hard to score good points but nevertheless we have a good car and team and we should be able to make it," insisted Hamilton yesterday.
"Tomorrow is a completely new day. In the past (McLaren] have come from the back and if anyone can do it, it is us. Both Jenson and I are quick in the wet but whether it is dry or wet hopefully we can be competitive and pick off the guys and get some points."
Button was also confident of being able to make up ground, especially if rain once again hit the circuit. "To fight for a win will be very difficult but if it is mixed up a bit we can have a good race," he said.
Red Bull have proven they currently possess the fastest car, although questionable reliability has thwarted their chances of claiming victories in the first two races. They gave themselves the best chance of rectifying that today with Webber choosing wisely to switch from wet-weather tyres to intermediates in Q3, even though rain continued to fall. That helped give the Australian the extra bit of pace he needed to clock the fastest lap and secure pole. Webber endured a frustrating race in Australia last weekend as he finished ninth after starting from second.