Hulkenberg on pole! Brazilian GP qualifying report

Nico Hulkenberg today profited from changeable conditions to take his first ever pole position for tomorrow’s Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.

The Williams man, having been fast throughout all three sessions, opted to go onto dry tyres early in the top ten shoot-out, and stormed to pole position with a lap to spare on the drying Sao Paulo track.

Championship contenders Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber took second and third spots on the grid respectively, minimising damage to their title challenges in tricky conditions. Lewis Hamilton will start fourth tomorrow while championship leader Fernando Alonso is fifth on the grid for Ferrari.

As the Q1 session started this afternoon, the conditions on track were definitely best suited to the intermediate tyre. Sebastien Buemi led them out at the start, and the assembled, committed Brazilian fans were looking skyward – more rain was expected. This realisation triggered a flurry of cars. The possibility was that the quickest times would be set early on, of course, if it rained.

Mark Webber was the first of the men of note to set an early sighter, but it rapidly became clear that there could not be a benchmark time. Times were plummeting as the track dried and the threat of rain receded. Nico Hulkenberg, the hero of later, was already popping in quick times with his team mate Rubens Barrichello not far behind.

Force India, though, were having a nightmare. Vitantonio Liuzzi lost it momentarily coming out of Mergulho, and his team mate Adrian Sutil was the direct loser, having to get out of the throttle as Liuzzi rejoined the track. Jenson Button was another man struggling to put a competitive time together. With nine minutes of the first session remaining, he was languishing in eighth.

Up at the front, Red Bull were making the running. Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were swapping fastest times at will, it seemed, almost as comfortable in the changing conditions as they had been in the dry practice sessions.

As the session drew to a close, Bruno Senna was desperately trying to close the gap to his team mate Christian Klien, who seems to have a better way with the HRT than does the nephew of the local legend Ayrton. Senna spun, although he kept going, and would ultimately end up last on the grid.

While the world watched the two Force Indias struggle to avoid the drop zone and each other, Fernando Alonso quietly set the quickest time, giving himself a small psychological advantage going into Q2. At the other end, out went Sutil, Glock, Trulli, Kovalainen, Di Grassi, Klien and Senna in that order.

All eyes were still on the heavens as Q2 started, but the rain still held off. Again the STRs led the field out, and again it was their stablemates Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel who set the agenda. A brief cameo from Rubens Barrichello gave a hint of the latent pace of the Williams, as the local hero popped in a 1m19.3s with ten minutes left.

The second session was evaporating rapidly and it quickly crystallised into a battle royale between two big guns – Felipe Massa in the Ferrari and Jenson Button in the McLaren. But this was not for provisional pole – it was to avoid the second drop. Both had had unspectacular weekends up to this point, and with three minutes to go, they were stuck down in 14th and 11th respectively. After a couple more efforts Massa was ultimately the victor. His top ten position, you thought, might render him more useful from a championship perspective to his team mate than Button would to his. Button could only manage 11th.

Behind the Englishman, whose championship challenge is surely over, lay Kamui Kobayashi, Nico Rosberg, Jaime Alguersuari, Sebastian Buemi, Nick Heidfeld and Vitantonio Liuzzi.

The third session was to be all about how quick the track would dry. It was rapidly becoming a case of when, and not if, dry tyres would be required. But ‘banker’ laps were a wise idea before that on the inters that had served everyone so well up to this point. Fernando Alonso, first out, was experimenting to see how much his Bridgestones would wear. Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, was setting quick times on his own inters. As the call to change came, it was Hamilton who was top of the timesheets on a 1m17.212.

It was just prior to this point that Williams had made an astute call. Patrick Head on the pitwall, responding to information given him by Rubens Barrichello in particular, had decided that dries were now the best option. Hulkenberg was the beneficiary because of track position. As the world focused on the championship runners diving into the pits to change their rubber, Hulkenberg was already out, exploring the track, testing where it was grippy and where it was not.

And the last corner was where it was treacherous. Robert Kubica was the first to fall foul on his dry rubber, taking a trip across the grass, and before you knew it Mark Webber had also outbraked himself there. No damage done for the Australian, but his fans must have had their hearts in their mouths.

There was a minute remaining at this point and Hulkenberg was lighting up the sector times. His first blinding lap time was a 1m16.373, which, although competitive, would surely be beaten as the track came to the drivers. Hamilton was looking as good on the dries as he had done on the inters, rushing over the line with a time a good tenth quicker than Hulkenberg’s.

Fernando Alonso was not done, yet, though. His next time was sub 1m16s, but it now looked as though whoever was last over the line would take pole. Hulkenberg was to be that man, but he didn’t know it yet, so went and set a time almost half a second quicker than Alonso. It was a 1m15.462. Hamilton went second to that, but the Red Bulls were arriving, and knocked him off that perch in rapid succession. At this point, time was out and everyone had done their level best. Except for Nico Hulkenberg. For good measure, and to emphasise the dominance of today’s performance, he then went and smashed his previous time by very nearly a second.

Hulkenberg had taken pole in majestic fashion. His performance was exemplary, but he also had his team and his team mate to thank. Conjecture has been growing over the future of this driving line-up at the Williams team, but surely this performance recommends it for at least another season.

It is, though, unlikely that Hulkenberg will win the race tomorrow. His mere presence at the front throws a spanner in the works as regards the denouement of the championship. How determined will the rookie be to maintain his lead? Or, if Vettel gets by him, how tricky will Hulkenberg be for Webber to negotiate? It is fascinating stuff.

Roll on, the Brazilian Grand Prix!

Pos Driver Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:20.050 1:19.144 1:14.470
2. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:19.160 1:18.691 1:15.519
3. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:19.025 1:18.516 1:15.637
4. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:19.931 1:18.921 1:15.747
5. Alonso Ferrari 1:18.987 1:19.010 1:15.989
6. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:19.799 1:18.925 1:16.203
7. Kubica Renault 1:19.249 1:18.877 1:16.552
8. Schumacher Mercedes 1:19.879 1:18.923 1:16.925
9. Massa Ferrari 1:19.778 1:19.200 1:17.101
10. Petrov Renault 1:20.189 1:19.153 1:17.656
11. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:19.905 1:19.288
12. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:19.741 1:19.385
13. Rosberg Mercedes 1:20.153 1:19.486
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:20.158 1:19.581
15. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:20.096 1:19.847
16. Heidfeld Sauber-Ferrari 1:20.174 1:19.899
17. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:20.592 1:20.357
18. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:20.830
19. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:22.130
20. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:22.250
21. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1:22.378
22. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:22.810
23. Klien HRT-Cosworth 1:23.083
24. Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:23.796