Lewis Hamilton took pole position for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix, but Kimi Raikkonen must start from near the back of the grid in Melbourne.
Hamilton finished first with McLaren team-mate Kovalainen in third
McLaren's Hamilton was fastest in the second and third runs, while Raikkonen was forced out before the second session after his Ferrari pulled up.
BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica almost stole pole but a slight oversteer in his last lap saw him finish second fastest.
Hamilton's McLaren team-mate Heikki Kovalainen was third quickest.
After claiming his seventh pole from just 18 starts, Hamilton was naturally in upbeat mood.
The car was working pretty well but I just had a rubbish couple of corners
"Being in pole is a great feeling, but there's always improvements you can make," said the 23-year-old Briton.
"It's going to be a very tough race and we just have to do the best we can in managing our tyres and hope for the best."
With traction control now outlawed, Hamilton said the start would be a crucial moment during the opening race of the season, particularly as Kubica is no slouch off the line.
"Obviously the start will be a major factor," said Hamilton. "The new regulations makes the starts a little bit trickier and I think you will see a wide range of good and bad starts."
As well as the removal of assisted engine braking, cars are also no longer allowed to refuel between qualifying and the race.
Hamilton said he had yet to give any thought as to how the rule changes might affect his planning for the race.
"There are definitely places where I can improve and the team can improve but it is very difficult going from a light fuel load to a heavy fuel load," he said.
"Going out, trying to brake at the same spot, you can't do that. You have to re-adjust.
Raikkonen was pushed back to the pits after his car broke down
"I've not really thought about strategy to be honest. It will be a little different, I think, at the first race because everyone's going to be experimenting and there's a lot of pressure on everyone."
Asked if he thought Raikkonen's lowly grid position would make his own race easier, Hamilton said: "I don't think so because we're not really sure what sort of pace Ferrari were going to have during Q3.
"I think I've got a tough enough job anyway, so I don't think not having Kimi in the top three is going to make it any less difficult."
Raikkonen, winner in Melbourne from pole position on his Ferrari debut last year, was eliminated when his car coasted to a halt with a fuel pressure problem and he had to be pushed back to the garage.
The Finn sat in his car at the start of the second session but climbed out of the cockpit after being told the assistance from his crew meant he was not allowed to continue.
Raikkonen, who will start the race from 16th place on the grid, said: "It's definitely not the best way to start the season.
"Clearly I'm disappointed. Now we must try to do our best to pick up some points tomorrow."
Better news for Ferrari was the performance of Felipe Massa, with the Brazilian clinching a place on the second row.
But there was disappointment for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, back at Renault after a season at McLaren, who failed to reach the third stage of qualifying and will start in 12th place.
Alonso said a differential failure affected his car and he was hopeful of a more competitive race.
Australia's Mark Webber spun his Red Bull into the gravel during the second run, bringing out the red flag. He will start from 15th.
Britain's David Coulthard grabbed an impressive eighth for Red Bull but compatriot Jenson Button missed out on a place in the third qualifying session and will line up his Honda in 13th place.
"The car was working pretty well but I just had a rubbish couple of corners," said Button.
"We lost about four tenths, which is so annoying. But I'm surprised by our performance and considering the mistakes I made, I'm pretty happy."
Toyota's Timo Glock will start from 19th place after being penalised 10 grid placings after two qualifying offences.
He qualified ninth but was moved back five spots because Toyota changed his gearbox in between morning practice and qualifying.
He suffered another five-place penalty for impeding Webber.
Final qualifying times for the Australian Grand Prix
1. Lewis Hamilton, Britain, McLaren-Mercedes, 1 minute, 26.714 seconds.
2. Robert Kubica, Poland, BMW-Sauber, 1:26.869.
3. Heikki Kovalainen, Finland, McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27.079.
4. Felipe Massa, Brazil, Ferrari, 1:27.178.
5. Nick Heidfeld, Germany, BMW-Sauber, 1:27. 236.
6. Jarno Trulli, Italy, Toyota, 1:28. 527.
7. Nico Rosberg, Germany, Williams, 1:28.687.
8. David Coulthard, Britain, Red Bull, 1:29.041.
9. Timo Glock, Germany, Toyota, 1:29.593.
10. Sebastian Vettel, Germany, Toro Rosso, did not start.
Eliminated after second session
11. Rubens Barrichello, Brazil, Honda, 1:26.173.
12. Fernando Alonso, Spain, Renault, 1:26.188.
13. Jenson Button, Britain, Honda, 1:26.259.
14. Kazuki Nakajima, Japan, Williams, 1:26.413.
15. Mark Webber, Australia, Red Bull, did not finish.
16. Kimi Raikkonen, Finland, Ferrari, did not start.
Eliminated after first session
17. Giancarlo Fisichella, Italy, Force India, 1:27.207.
18. Sebastien Bourdais, France, Toro Rosso, 1:27.446.
19. Adrian Sutil, Germany, Force India, 1;27.859.
20. Takuma Sato, Japan, Super Aguri, 1:28.208.
21. Nelson Piquet Jr., Brazil, Renault, 1:28.330.
22. Anthony Davidson, Britian, Super Aguri, 1:29.059.