Britons off the pace as Red Bull find their wings

Vettel snatches pole while Schumacher has little to smile about – but it could be all change at the finish line today

So now we know: Red Bull currently have the fastest car (at least for a lap), but Ferrari's isn't much slower. McLaren, however, have some work to do. Those were the lessons from the much-anticipated first qualifying session of the 2010 season which, with four world champions in the field, is being billed as the best ever.

Up until the start of qualifying it seemed a four-horse race, with McLaren and their old partner Mercedes in with an equal chance, and Force India and Sauber the most likely to spring surprises. But the reality was somewhat different as Sebastian Vettel snatched pole position.

Felipe Massa contained the much-vaunted challenge of his new Ferrari team-mate, Fernando Alonso, in his first race back since his horrible accident in Hungary last year, while Lewis Hamilton aced Jenson Button quite comfortably but McLaren were 1.1sec off the pace. And Michael Schumacher hurled toys from his pram more than once after his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, had a comfortable margin over him in every session.

For sure, there was plenty that did not go as expected. Inevitably, there were suggestions that Red Bull had been sandbagging in testing. But they had had a tough Friday, with driveshaft problems. And they made a few small but critical changes yesterday which all worked well.

"It was a big surprise, to be honest," Vettel said. "We didn't do as much running as we'd hoped for yesterday, and it was a long night for the mechanics. Then we changed some small things, nothing special, which had a big effect."

It was less of a surprise to see the Ferraris going so well, because they have been the most consistent performers all through testing. But it was against the run of predictions that Massa, the little guy whose welfare we all feared for last July, bounced insouciantly back to outdo Alonso, who is widely regarded as one of the two best drivers in the game.

One of the cool things about Vettel is that he has class. "I'm sure I speak on behalf of all the drivers," he said, "when I say great respect to Felipe for what he has achieved at his first race. It's good to have him back."

Massa's trademark naughty schoolboy smirk widened even more, and well it might have. Last July he was in big trouble after the accident in Hungary, yet here he was, right back into a comeback more convincing than Schumacher's. "It's just fantastic to be here, to fight again," he said. "After watching the races on TV, I can say that it's much better to be inside the car. I think it was very positive today, and we did a good job at home to prepare the car and move in the right direction. Me and Fernando second and third, that's great for the team." Beating Alonso was the icing on the cake.

At McLaren there was surprise, but not despair, at the relative lack of pace. The MP4-25 seemed vulnerable in the bumpy, unpopular Mickey Mouse sector two. "I'm surprised by this afternoon's result," Hamilton admitted. "I definitely wasn't expecting to be fourth quickest. We've struggled in the middle sector – we're lacking a bit of downforce. But this is a much, much better position to start the season than the one we found ourselves in last year." Button was similarly surprised, and said: "I really struggled with front- brake locking this afternoon – but we cured that problem throughout the sessions. I was getting happier with the car throughout each stint, but in Q3 something didn't feel quite right.

"Managing the tyres tomorrow is going to be very tricky. I don't think people perhaps understand how tough it is to look after them in these conditions – it's unbelievable how quickly they drop off. Today, we saw which cars are fast over one lap; tomorrow maybe we'll see a slightly different picture because these cars work very differently on higher fuel loads."

The other unhappy camp was Mercedes, where Schumacher's smile looked as convincing as a British MP's expenses claim. The current breed of F1 car, on the current Bridgestone tyres, understeers. Rosberg likes that, Schumacher does not; he wants a car on which he only has to breathe for it to throw itself into a corner, and to hell with resultant oversteer. Give him understeer, and even he's foxed. Don't be fooled, he was not a happy man in Bahrain. "Not much progress when you think about it," one cynic joked. "He qualified seventh for his first F1 race in Belgium back in 1991. Now look where he is second time around..."

This season, qualifying pace and race pace will be very different animals, and you only get the prizes (and those lovely revised points) for races. Tyre performance and preservation will be crucial, and that will depend on car design and driver sensitivity, so we could have a very different order this afternoon. Vettel liked that idea. "It's going to be a long, long race, an endurance event not a sprint," he beamed. "No one really knows what to expect, which makes it so exciting."

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?