The weather wouldn't let go as the 2011 winner, Fernando Alonso, scraped to an on-the-limit pole for the British GP in a disrupted qualifying session that took more than two hours to complete yesterday. The first session, Q1, was completed and saw the dramatic decline of British hope Jenson Button, who was only 18th fastest.
Then, with six minutes of Q2 remaining, the race director, Charlie Whiting, red-flagged the session as conditions became unsafe after yet another downpour. It took until three o'clock before they improved to complete that session, and then to stage the all-important Q3 which decides the top 10 grid positions.
Lewis Hamilton had been fastest eventually in Q2, but was unable to play a significant role as the final cards were dealt.
The session was all about choosing the right tyres – Pirelli's intermediate – then staying out on track to take advantage as conditions improved lap by lap. First Pastor Maldonado was fastest for Williams, then Felipe Massa for Ferrari and Michael Schumacher for Mercedes, before Alonso became the first to go fastest on the intermediates. Then it was Massa again, similarly shod, before Alonso went fastest again with three minutes left. The 2010 winner, Mark Webber, was on top form for Red Bull, however, and snatched the initiative with 1min 51.793sec before Alonso settled the issue at 1:51.746.
Behind them, Schumacher improved to 1:52.020 for third ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Red Bull on 1:52.199. Massa was fifth with 1:53.065, and late improvements from Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen and Maldonado left Hamilton a disappointed eighth.
"It was the same conditions for everyone," Alonso said. "You have to be calm in difficult moments, and for a while in Q2 we were positions 15 and 16, Felipe and me. But we got through to Q3. Then it was a difficult choice, the full wet tyres or the intermediates, but we saw the way to go and were able to calm down a bit and put a lap together. It was not easy, there was a mistake here and there because you never knew what was around the next corner, but I'm happy with pole position for Ferrari after we wait nearly two years."
There was speculation the Spaniard might be penalised after setting his fastest Q2 time when Romain Grosjean's stricken Lotus brought yellow caution flags out at Vale, but the sector times proved that he had not improved on his previous best time. "I didn't set a green sector on that lap," Alonso explained. "I backed off in the area that they were taking the car away."
Webber was philosophical after missing out by 500ths of a second. "It was a tight session; you don't know how you are going overall so you just focus on putting a lap together," the Australian said. "It was difficult to get comfortable in the conditions, but ultimately we got a pretty good lap together so I'm happy."
Hamilton and Button weren't. Even by the standards of the day their McLarens lacked grip. "I don't really know what happened in Q3," Hamilton said. "The full wets had been working really well but, as the track gradually became less wet, I switched to the intermediates and struggled to get temperature into them. I just couldn't switch them on and had very little grip. We'll have to try to analyse the problem overnight and hopefully fix it for tomorrow. We couldn't get on the front row, but we can still push tomorrow.
"Although eighth position isn't the best place from which to be starting, it's going to be a tough race and we're not that far away." Button had the same problem, but in Q1.
"I couldn't get heat into the front tyres," he said. "The one positive is that everyone else is going around for two more sessions on their tyres and it's going to rain tomorrow. It's going to be very difficult for everyone, but I'll have better tyres. I'd rather have put on a much better show for the fans on Saturday but it's the story of my year so I'm not too upset. I know I can drive a car in the wet."
"I want to give a shout-out to the fans," Hamilton said. "They've been fantastic: very patient and so supportive. The cheers from the grandstands were spectacular."
Webber felt for the fans on Friday and could sympathise with their frustration when many teams restricted their running time in practice.
"It's horrible," said Webber. "They don't always understand why we don't run, especially when the conditions are going to be pretty similar over the weekend. Most of us had our hands tied with the weather.
"We wanted to get the practice in so we could get on top of the conditions, but unfortunately there was no point being top of the pops then, doing loads of mileage and wearing the tyres out, because we don't get any points in practice."