By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The final stages of qualifying for Sunday's season-opening Australian Formula One Grand Prix were postponed to the morning of the race after heavy rain made conditions impossible on Saturday.
A chaotic opening segment of qualifying was completed after a delay but as the rain persisted and the skies grew darker, race director Charlie Whiting decided the climax of the session would have to wait until 11 a.m. (8.00 p.m. ET) local time on Sunday.
"I think it was absolutely the right decision to delay it until tomorrow morning," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. "It's a shame, but I think Charlie has made the right call.
"You can see it's quite dark now and these conditions are not safe for the drivers. Hopefully this weather will blow through tonight and we'll be back with better conditions in the morning."
It was the first time since the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix that bad weather had caused qualifying to be held on the same day as the race and McLaren's Jenson Button said it was disappointing for driver and spectator alike.
"There's so much pent-up energy and adrenalin and we've got to find a way of getting rid of that now," said the Briton, who has won three of the last four races at Albert Park.
"It's sad for the fans, they've been here all day and we weren't able to put on a show."
After a hot, sunny morning in Melbourne, the rain descended in time to disrupt the final practice session and rarely relented thereafter.
The first section of qualifying started with plenty of water still on the circuit and ended in more heavy rain with bits of car strewn across the track.
Nico Rosberg set the quickest time for Mercedes in that session in one minute 43.380, ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean in a Lotus.
"I don't want to think too much about the front row," said Rosberg. "For sure, it's going to be much more difficult in the dry. Today we were really quick in the wet ... in the wet, great car."
Button escaped an embarrassing exit by making an early gamble on intermediate tires but Pastor Maldonado of Williams was late to make the change and one of the six drivers eliminated.
The Venezuelan, a race winner from pole position last year in Spain, was accompanied by four of the five rookies but was not about to blame the weather for his early exit.
"We need to work very hard to solve the problems," he said. "The car is undriveable at the moment. In the wet we were slow and in the dry as well."
Sauber's Esteban Gutierrez, the Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton as well as Caterham driver Giedo van der Garde were also eliminated.
Charles Pic finished last after a big crash before the end of the session, failing to record a time inside 107 percent of the quickest in his Caterham and so will have to appeal to the stewards to race on Sunday.
Lewis Hamilton's first weekend with Mercedes continued to be eventful.
The 2008 world champion was the first driver to set a time but his day almost came to an end on his next lap when he spun his Mercedes at turn two and bumped into the tire wall before appearing to get bogged down on the trackside grass.
The former world champion finally managed to get his car back on the track and, despite his team fearing he had rear wing damage, stayed out to record the 10th quickest time.
"It's not been a good weekend so far, lots of down points so far but I think we can turn it around," said the Briton.
"It was not the best of situations to be in but at least I didn't take any wheels off. I was able to keep going. It wasn't very good."
That set the trend for the session as car after car spun off with Ferrari's Felipe Massa, Button's new team mate Sergio Perez and Dutchman Van der Garde all losing chunks of their car.
"It started to rain again and the intermediates just couldn't cope with moving that amount of water," said Horner.
"So it got quite tricky right at the end there which is why you saw a few cars going off right at the end. So just very difficult conditions."
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty/Alan Baldwin)