What is it about the Finnish ‘sisu’ (strength of will) that makes it such a foreboding attribute around Silverstone? Mika Hakkinen relished throwing his McLaren around the undulating high-speed circuit. Kimi Raikkonen picked up the baton with his dominant display at the British circuit last year. And now Heikki Kovalainen has stamped his authority on the Northants track with a sensational lap in qualifying today conspiracists might even put the loss of the grand prix down to some kind of anti-Scandinavian plot.
Whether it was his five years of racing in the UK coming to the fore, his dominance at last week’s test enabling him to hit the sweet spot, or just his downright speed behind the wheel of his MP4-23 finally being unleashed in the absence of technical short-comings Heikki Kovalainen looked untouchable.
The Finn pulled out the lap of his life in Q3 to clinch his first career pole position with a colossal margin of 0.5 seconds over the brilliant Mark Webber and almost 0.8 seconds quicker than team-mate Lewis Hamilton. He attacked the 5.141km track with impunity, hustling his McLaren through each of the fifteen corners with total dedication, no more so than in the tight twisty third sector where he went quicker than anyone.
“We’ve been going really well all weekend after finding some good pace during testing,” said the 26-year-old pointing to last week’s three-day test at Silverstone as key to his preparations. Indeed, McLaren a team with a knack of being able to make developments to the car mid-season, fast introduced a raft of new additions to the car at the test which seems to have flipped the expected deficit to Ferrari this weekend on its head.
“I’ve spent a lot of time racing in the UK so it feels great to have scored my first ever Formula 1 pole position at Silverstone,” added Kovalainen. “The car feels just fantastic at the moment; I was able to steadily improve throughout all three qualifying session and I’m confident our pace is going to be strong tomorrow.”
A mistake on his first flying lap at Priory brought about Hamilton’s downfall, the British hero electing to carry on for another lap before pitting which meant any risk-taking was off the cards on his second attempt.
“I felt comfortable in the car and the speed was there,” reflected the 23-year-old. “However, on my first flying lap in Q3 I ran a bit wide at the exit of Priory and went onto the gravel. Obviously I just pushed a little bit too hard and it’s a pity that I missed the front row.”
The scale of the gap between the two McLaren drivers raises the obvious questions about fuel levels. It looks as though McLaren have put their drivers on different strategies with Hamilton hinting as much with his reference to ‘our strategy’: “With our strategy and the predicted rain for tomorrow’s race everything will be possible,” he said.
With hindsight Kovalainen could have run heavier, but then again no one guessed that Mark Webber was going to prove such a threat to the top spot.
Silverstone has one of the highest fuel consumption levels on the calendar which means the weight penalty or advantage in Kovalainen’s case is bigger than normal in qualifying. This partly explains why the margin is so big. Last year Kimi Raikkonen was around half a second quicker than the McLarens, yet with only two more laps of fuel than Hamilton in qualifying he still struggled to seal pole position from the Briton.
This is also why Hamilton and Raikkonen remain a potent threat in Sunday’s race. If they are running heavier than Kovalainen then the gap is not necessarily as big as it looks. Kimi, in fact, blamed the wind for the deficit to his fellow countryman.
“We worked a lot on the car set-up and, especially in Q3 the balance wasn’t bad,” said the Finn. “There was a lot of wind, which made it hard to fully understand the track because the conditions were changing all the time. In race trim, we have a good car and I think tomorrow I can get a good result.”
The fact that his third sector time was considerably better than his times in the high-speed sectors, where the cross-winds are a bigger inconvenience, adds weight to his argument and suggests there is still some more to come from the Iceman.
The problem for Raikkonen, and Hamilton too if one of his lightening starts escapes him, is Mark Webber’s Red Bull. The Aussie has been driving beautifully all weekend and if he gets in the way of these two that will enable Kovalainen to scamper off into the distance. Short-stopping or not, with the pace he showed in qualifying today Kovalainen could stop for tea and still canter to the chequered flag.
But perhaps the man with the most to do on Sunday is championship leader Felipe Massa. The Brazilian’s chances of planting his Ferrari on the front two rows were dashed after his mechanics were unable to change the right rear tyre in time for his second run. He starts Sunday’s race from ninth, and admits being ragged in Friday’s afternoon session following his crash on Alonso’s oil during the morning. Such issues have left him, unlike team-mate Raikkonen, concerned about the handling of his F2008 ahead of the race.
“It’s a real shame ending up ninth on the grid because of a problem with my pit stop. I lost so much time as the mechanics had trouble changing the right rear wheel and I was unable to start my second run.”
“I think I could have done a good time, maybe not enough to take pole but at least good enough for a place on the front two rows. There was a lot of wind today and the balance of the car was not as good as yesterday and we were not as quick as at last week’s test.”
The driver currently hot on the heels of Massa in the title race, Robert Kubica, is another man who faces an uphill struggle on Sunday. The Pole was hit by technical problems on his first flying lap and was forced to pull into the pits and sit out the rest of the session. However, Kubica was confident that the team had taken a step forward after going the wrong way with the development of the car in France, while Nick Heidfeld’s fifth place seemed to underline this.
“It was a difficult qualifying in the end,” reflected Kubica. “Finally we were on the right pace. Qualifying 1 was good and qualifying 2 was even better, as the first time on option tyres was very good.”
“I backed off in the last sector to just bring the car home, and it was still enough to be two or three tenths off the McLaren time. In qualifying 3 I went through the first sector without any problems, but then I felt the same problem at the rear I felt on Friday.”
With the grid looking as it does at the moment not to mention the threat of rain the championship points table looks set for its now customary shake-up this weekend.