Hamilton and McLaren back on song in Valencia
Lewis Hamilton put McLaren on pole position for the first time this season, edging out teammate Heikki Kovalainen to make it an all silver front row in Valencia.
Hamilton, aided by a revised chassis specifically for the European Grand Prix, laid down the gauntlet with a blistering 1:39.498 on his first attempt in Q3.
The Brawn drivers emerged as McLaren’s closest rivals but neither Jenson Button or Rubens Barrichello could match Hamilton’s pace on their first runs.
Barrichello almost usurped the Briton on his second attempt with a 1:39.563, less than a tenth of a second shy of Hamilton, but Heikki Kovalainen promptly edged out the Brawn driver to make it a McLaren 1-2.
The Finn, who was 2kg lighter than Hamilton on fuel, continued for a second run, but a mistake in the final sector prevented him from stealing the top spot.
With pole position in the bag, Hamilton peeled off into the pitlane, not feeling the need to make a second run.
“After winning in Hungary, we came here not knowing if the others would have closed the gap: clearly, we re still competitive,” said Hamilton after claiming his fourteenth career pole. “We haven t seen this level of performance for a long time: last year, I was able to do only one run in easy qualifying session but, this year, we ve had to use every second of the sessions to get through.
“I managed a couple of very good laps today, so we ll start the race from a very competitive position but a lot will depend on strategy and how the start goes.
“We ve got the front row to ourselves and that s something we ve all wanted for a very long time.â€
Rubens Barrichello ended the session third quickest ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.
Championship leader Jenson Button will again be under pressure to defend his title lead as he starts Sunday’s race from fifth place, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Williams’ Nico Rosberg.
However, crucially, the Briton is carrying an extra couple of laps worth of fuel over his rivals, which could help him to leapfrog Sebastian Vettel in the race.
“It was a pretty good qualifying session for the team today and the car felt strong throughout,” said Button, who, having dominated the first half of the season has finished outside the top three in the last few races.
“Unfortunately I made a mistake at turn four on my quick lap which compromised my position as I had just the one flying lap on my final run in Q3. It’s a shame as the potential was there for more but fifth on the grid is not bad at all.”
“The car is feeling pretty good with fuel so we will see what the race will bring tomorrow. It’s not a great circuit for overtaking but I’ll be giving it everything for a good result.”
Team principal Ross Brawn confirmed that the BGP001 was responding better to the hotter conditions in Valencia and both Button and Barrichello were able to generate more heat into their Bridgestone Potenzas.
“It was a tricky session today with track temperatures escalating fast which meant we had to think on our feet and adapt our plan for Q3 during the break,” said Brawn.
“This might have compromised our performance a little as Rubens’ tyres went off on his second lap whilst Jenson had only the one flying lap on his final run.
“However third and fifth places on the grid is a strong position to be starting from tomorrow and we are generally happy with the performance of the car this weekend so we can look forward to a good race. It was another good day for our engine partner Mercedes-Benz with three cars in the top three grid positions.”
Local favourite Fernando Alonso was eighth quickest, ahead of Mark Webber in the sister Red Bull and Robert Kubica who managed to hustle the ill-handling BMW Sauber F1.09 into the top ten.
Alonso said: “Of course, I’m not happy with 8th but since we had the same position in Q2 it seems that this was the limit of the car today. I’m disappointed for all the fans here for whom I would have liked a better grid position, but I’ll do my best tomorrow in the race.”
Ferrari stand-in Luca Badoer failed to impress on his return to grand prix racing. The Italian veteran was knocked out of Q1 with the slowest time of the session.
Badoer will start Sunday’s race from last place, embarrassingly, behind Toro Rosso rookie Jaime Alguersuari, a stark reminder of the importance of racing experience when acting as a third driver.
Badoer reflected: “Obviously, I m a bit disappointed as it s never nice to be last in any situation, but I always knew it would be tough. As I ve said before, this weekend is a sort of test for me and the team and that is how we are tackling it.”
“However, I do feel the situation is better than yesterday as the more laps I do, the more confidence I gain and the better it gets. Tomorrow it will be important to finish the race and that will be my target. I feel good physically and I have no problems on that score. For sure, if I d had two days testing under my belt, it would have been a different story.â€
Sebastian Grosjean, making his Formula One debut for Renualt, was another rookie to impress. The French driver progressed to Q2 and wound up fourteenth fastest ahead of Sebastian Beumi in the sister Toro Rosso.
Force India continued to impress as Adrian Sutil hustled his car into twelfth place, just shy of BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld, while teammate Giancarlo Fisichella just missed out on the Q2 cusp and will start in sixteenth place, ahead of Williams’ Kazuki Nakajima.
“We’ve been quick here all the weekend and everything is working very well,” said Sutil. “I’m really happy about the upgrades we’ve put on the car, the team is doing a great job. We’ve made a big step forward in the last couple of months and I’m really enjoying every session now.”
“This morning was the best way to prepare for qualifying, but we knew it was not going to be possible to replicate this position. Conditions for qualifying were actually pretty tough with quite low grip and high temperatures but the lap times are very close – it seems to be a characteristic of this circuit.”
“We were just a few hundredths from Q3 so we just missed out in the end. We are in a good position now though so it’s a reasonable goal for us to say we want to score our first points here.”
It was a frustrating session for Toyota. Jarno Trulli was a victim of the competitive opening session. Teammate Timo Glock just scraped through but could only muster thirteenth in Q2.
“I was expecting qualifying to be a bit difficult but not as bad as that,” rued Trulli. “This morning the car felt reasonable even if we were a little short of grip. But it was much worse in qualifying; I really had no grip and there was nothing I could do.”
“I just kept pushing and took a few more risks than normal but it didn’t work out. I don’t know why we struggled so much; it is a mystery to me. For the race tomorrow I can just do my best and see what happens.”
1 Lewis Hamilton McLaren 1:38.182 2 Heikki Kovalainen McLaren 0:00.048 3 Rubens Barrichello Brawn 0:00.694 4 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 0:00.091 5 Jenson Button Brawn 0:00.349 6 Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen Ferrari 0:00.600 7 Nico Rosberg Williams 0:00.164 8 Fernando Alonso Renault 0:00.535 9 Mark Webber Red Bull 0:00.443 10 Robert Kubica BMW 0:00.565 11 Nick Heidfeld BMW 0:00.644 12 Adrian Sutil Force India 0:00.664 13 Timo Glock Toyota 0:01.809 14 Romain Grosjean Renault 0:00.858 15 Sebastien Buemi Toro Rosso 0:00.730 16 Giancarlo Fisichella Force India 0:01.349 17 Kazuki Nakajima Williams 0:01.613 18 Jarno Trulli Toyota 0:01.625 19 Alguersuari Jaime Toro Rosso 0:01.743 20 Luca Badoer Ferrari 0:03.231