Button grabs pole in nick of time

Briton starts flying lap seconds before flag comes down on qualifying

It could have gone very, very wrong," Jenson Button said with a relieved smile after qualifying yesterday had seen him snatch his third pole position – perhaps the most important one psychologically. And how right he was, having crossed the start-finish line to begin his final run with literally only two seconds to spare before the chequered flag ended it.

"We thought we timed it quite well," he continued, "but I got out late and needed everything I had to get a quick lap. I was told that Robert [Kubica] was on an out lap but it turned out he was on his quick lap so I was told to stay in front of him, but by then I had been screwed by that because I had already let him by so then I had to drop back to get a gap. So I actually crossed the line with two seconds to spare. But obviously I got the got job done. That was by far the best pole I've had."

Qualifying here is usually a dull affair because teams test so much at the Circuit de Catalunya that they all know the place intimately, but this year the session marked the first opportunity for all of them to compare the latest aerodynamic upgrades they had introduced since Bahrain last month – and to see what, if anything, had changed about the pecking order.

"I don't know that anyone has really gone that much quicker apart from the Ferrari," Button mused.

His best lap of one minute 20.527 seconds had displaced Sebastan Vettel, the winner of the Chinese Grand Prix, whose 1min 20.660sec in his Red Bull had itself overhauled Button's Brawn team-mate Rubens Barrichello and his lap of 1min 20.762sec. Behind them lurked Felipe Massa's red car, on 1min 20.934sec.

"Felipe was within two tenths of Rubens' lap, and they are closing very, very quickly and I'm surprised," Button added, a note of concern in his voice. "They're the one to watch over the next two races, to be sure.

"The guys back at our factory should be proud of what they've done, but we need to keep moving, we can't stay still."

Vettel, fast becoming not just a pacesetter in his own right in what is clearly another very good car from designer Adrian Newey, but also the joker of the pack, admitted he had made a small but costly mistake. "My lap was not good enough to beat Jenson today," he admitted. "I wished to have pole but at the last minute he took it away. Still, we are on the front row so it's a good recovery from yesterday when we struggled with the balance of the car."

It also maintained his enviable 2009 record of qualifying in the top three for each race. Barrichello looked a little unhappy to be pipped by his team-mate and suggested that he might just have ventured out too early, when the track was not quite at its best.

But Button had only good things to say about his partner's performance. "This guy has been tremendous," he said, gesturing at the Brazilian, "and it was tough to hang on to him when we were running low fuel, but I got the lap on high fuel.

"Some of our improvement was because we were looking at how quick Rubens was. We looked at his set-up and took some parts from it, which helped us a lot. I'm glad he was quick all weekend, because it helped me a lot.

"Coming into qualifying I knew we made an improvement, but not by how much. Qualifying was strange, I couldn't get anywhere near Rubens in Q2, there was some rear movement in my car which is never my favourite, but with fuel aboard it felt as it had this morning.

"But I'm surprised to be on pole. I knew it was a good lap though, but it was still a shock to the system. When I heard Shove's voice [his race engineer Andrew Shovlin] when I got the pole, it felt pretty good. The last two races I've been nowhere near the qualifying top-three press conference. But it's going to be a tough race tomorrow, especially as Ferrari have KERS."

The energy recovery device gives a momentary power boost of 60 bhp and an advantage of 10 metres in the run to the first corner, so the top three were more than aware of the threat Massa posed. "That could be a problem," Button conceded. "It could make it a bit crazy into Turn One."

The grid placings are each spaced eight metres apart, so Button in first place has 24 metres over Massa in fourth to begin with. So, all being well, he should have 14 metres' grace.

"It could cause mayhem, especially with a relatively high-speed corner like that," the championship leader ruminated. "It will be all about keeping your nose clean going into Turn One."