Malaysian Grand Prix: Qualifying report

Mark Webber takes pole position in today’s rain-soaked qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix

Australian’s tyre gamble pays off as he chooses intermediates over full wets when final seven minutes of delayed final session commences

Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa all fall prey to conditions in first qualifying and are to start from the back of the field tomorrow

Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Sutil take second, third and fourth spots respectively

Mark Webber today took a superb pole position in a rain-affected qualifying session for the Malaysian Grand Prix. Unlike the other final ten runners, the Australian elected to put intermediate tyres on for his final run, a gamble which paid off as he stormed to the front of the grid with a time more than a second quicker than Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes.
The final session had been delayed for ten minutes by the sodden conditions and the rivers that were forming on parts of the track. It was a microcosm of the day’s events as a whole, with the track being treacherous throughout, and many runners experiencing aquaplaning.

The rain had held off until a judicious seven minutes before Q1 was due to start, and as the track was not yet wet enough to warrant the appearance of the extreme wet tyres, everybody opted for intermediates. Vitaly Petrov was first to spin at Turn 2 as the conditions deteriorated, but as yet the big guns of Ferrari and McLaren had not gone out. They were waiting for the rain to clear, as they thought it would be a short shower, and the track would be faster towards the end of the first session.

Sebastian Buemi set the early pace, with a 1m 48.945s, that preceded the arrival of his stable-mate Sebastian Vettel. Vettel was expected swiftly to better Buemi’s time, but he could not, and it rapidly became obvious that the big names were in serious danger here. Bruno Senna was then in the gravel trap, as water began to make the track extremely tricky. Lewis Hamilton, an acknowledged wet weather specialist, spun at the last corner on an early run and thereafter was always in trouble there, tiptoeing round. It was beginning to be the time for full wets, and Schumacher and Rosberg were the first to change.

It was at this point that Jenson Button aquaplaned clean off the track in the middle sector, promptly bouncing into the gravel. His wheels spun ineffectually and he was beached. The long sweeping corners of the Sepang track now had torrents of water running across them, spelling danger for all the drivers out there. Button, as the rules stated, would play no further part in qualifying, although he had set a reasonably quick time on his previous run.

“We got it wrong, basically,” said Button to the press. “Some parts of the track are completely dry, and others…I aquaplaned off and couldn’t do anything.”

Worse was to come for McLaren, and Ferrari were in no happier a place. Lewis Hamilton could not hook his McLaren into a competitive time in the dreadful conditions, and Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were having off-track excursions of their own. Meanwhile, Robert Kubica was somehow making the Renault work for him – its good traction a massive bonus when the race track is wet. He set a 1m 46.283 with a minute left in the session, ensuring that his name would be at the top of the board going into Q2.

But all eyes were on Hamilton and Alonso, struggling to make it round for a final lap. Both managed, but were unable to get any significant gains on past efforts. Alonso pipped Hamilton just, but to 19th place, something of which he will not be proud. Even Jarno Trulli in the lowly Lotus managed to scrape into 18th ahead of the pair, and Felipe Massa will start from 21st. The other casualties from the first round were the two HRTs, Chandhok pipping Senna to 22nd, and Lucas di Grassi, whose Virgin had been in intensive care just prior to the session’s start. The world champions at the back, however, had been undone by their own and their teams’ bad decision-making and timing.

“We went in the wrong moment,” said Alonso, by way of explanation. “We’ve been unlucky, we made mistakes,” he clarified. Massa was similarly dejected. “It was not the right strategy, it was definitely the wrong decision, and it will be a difficult race.”

Hamilton wryly smiled about the whole affair. “I had yellow flags and I just couldn’t nail it. You just have to laugh about it, it’s just one of those things. Tomorrow I’ll race my heart out again and we’ll see what happens,” he told the BBC.

Meanwhile, Q2 was getting under way. Vitaly Petrov was turning in some nice-looking times, even if he did look, as Martin Brundle immortally remarked, as if he was “fighting an octopus” in the Renault. Michael Schumacher promptly broke Petrov’s time by a second, but Robert Kubica was never far away from the action. Petrov was not finished yet, though, setting a time that bettered Schumacher’s by two seconds. The two Williamses were also competitive, Barrichello and Hulkenberg revelling in the slippery conditions even though the rain seemed for the moment to have stopped.

Sebastian Vettel had woken up by now and was setting faster times. But the rain came back with two minutes of the session left, and it was back with a vengeance. Mark Webber got into the top ten before the track became a swimming pool, but Schumacher had slid down to tenth and only scraped into the final shootout. For all his heroics Petrov was eliminated in 11th, followed by de la Rosa (12th), Buemi, Alguersuari, Heikki Kovalainen with an excellent job in the Lotus Racing team’s home race, Timo Glock and Jenson Button in 17th, although of course he had not played any part in Q2. “In front of three of my championship rivals – that’s the best way of looking at it,” Button remarked.

The third and final session, the shootout, was on us already. But the rain showed no signs of abating, coming down in great sheets. Three minutes was all the drivers managed on track before race director Charlie Whiting called a stop to proceedings. The red flag was shown for reasons of safety – with marshals tending to any aquaplaned car, it would be madness to allow other cars to continue at racing speed.

It was a delay of perhaps ten minutes, with seven minutes and seventeen seconds remaining on the timer. But the rain had stopped and the track was rapidly drying. Webber chose this moment to change his tyres to the intermediate rubber, a brave decision that had echoes of Jenson Button’s call the week before in Australia. In Webber’s hands and after one or two dodgy sector times, the Red Bull went quicker and quicker, and there could be no real doubt about who would take the pole. His time was a 1m 49.327, he was a massive 1.346 seconds ahead of Rosberg as the chequered flag fell and will sit in the best possible position for tomorrow’s race.

His boss Christian Horner confirmed that it had been Mark’s decision. “It was something he wanted to have a crack at,” said the avuncular Englishman. “We were only too happy to split the cars,” he added. Vettel was indeed on the full wets, and had turned in a very respectable third fastest time.

Adrian Sutil profited from the conditions to take an excellent fourth spot in his Force India, and rookie Nico Hulkenberg will be chuffed with fifth place on the grid. Kubica took sixth, with Barrichello seventh, Schumacher eighth, Kobayashi a creditable ninth and Liuzzi tenth. It remains to be seen whether the pace of the top ten can be turned into results tomorrow, and it seems entirely possible that the crazy Malaysian weather will continue to play a massive part.

But tyre gambles are paying off at the moment.

Full qualifying results:
Pos Driver Car Team Q1 Q2 Q3
1 Mark Webber 6 Red Bull-Renault 1:51.886 1:48.210 1:49.327
2 Nico Rosberg 4 Mercedes GP 1:52.560 1:47.417 1:50.673
3 Sebastian Vettel 5 Red Bull-Renault 1:47.632 1:46.828 1:50.789
4 Adrian Sutil 14 Force India-Mercedes 1:49.479 1:47.085 1:50.914
5 Nico Hulkenberg 10 Williams-Cosworth 1:49.664 1:47.346 1:51.001
6 Robert Kubica 11 Renault 1:46.283 1:46.951 1:51.051
7 Rubens Barrichello 9 Williams-Cosworth 1:50.301 1:48.371 1:51.511
8 Michael Schumacher 3 Mercedes GP 1:52.239 1:48.400 1:51.717
9 Kamui Kobayashi 23 BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:48.467 1:47.792 1:51.767
10 Vitantonio Liuzzi 15 Force India-Mercedes 1:49.922 1:48.238 1:52.254
11 Vitaly Petrov 12 Renault 1:47.952 1:48.760
12 Pedro de la Rosa 22 BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:47.153 1:48.771
13 Sebastien Buemi 16 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.945 1:49.207
14 Jaime Alguersuari 17 Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.655 1:49.464
15 Heikki Kovalainen 19 Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.875 1:52.270
16 Timo Glock 24 Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.398 1:52.520
17 Jenson Button 1 McLaren-Mercedes 1:52.211 1:52.211
18 Jarno Trulli 18 Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.884
19 Fernando Alonso 8 Ferrari 1:53.044
20 Lewis Hamilton 2 McLaren-Mercedes 1:53.050
21 Felipe Massa 7 Ferrari 1:53.283
22 Karun Chandhok 20 Hispania-Cosworth 1:56.299
23 Bruno Senna 21 Hispania-Cosworth 1:57.269
24 Lucas di Grassi 25 Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.977