Lewis Hamilton admitted yesterday that he was surprised to qualify his McLaren only fifth for this afternoon's Spanish Grand Prix. Besides arch-rival Kimi Raikkonen, who took pole position for a dominant Ferrari team, the Briton found himself behind former team-mate Fernando Alonso's Renault, Felipe Massa's Ferrari and Robert Kubica's BMW Sauber.
Hamilton told ITV that he had expected to fight for pole position. "I've just looked at the times and we obviously didn't have it," he said. "We seemed to be quite quick on the single lap, but I'm just shocked and stunned that we didn't have the pace on the heavy fuel load."
Hamilton will have to pick his way past some tough rivals before he can offer a serious challenge to Raikkonen, who is on a roll. He will, of course, be mindful that his initial delays in Bahrain put him back in the pack and triggered the collision with Alonso that ruined his race.
"It shouldn't be such a problem," he said. "Obviously up there you are with all the professional drivers, so they all want to finish. We need to make sure we make a few places up at the start. I think our race pace is quite good so I still feel quite confident."
Raikkonen was delighted by his easy pole: "We changed the set-up quite a bit since the test here recently, and it seems to work good so far." Told that the last seven pole-sitters have gone on to win the race, he offered a broad smile.
So did Alonso and the organisers, who had seen a slump in gate receipts after his switch from a competitive McLaren to a less competitive Renault. While changes to the latter have made a difference, few believe that Renault have been able to recover lost ground so quickly.
"It was a great feeling for a moment to be on pole. It was very exciting when I closed on the [finish] line because I knew the time was good and the engineers were informing me every second. I knew it was first row in the worst case, so I cannot be more happy than I am now."
Loyal fan Chico Rella said: "This is fantastic news for Spain. Watching Alonso at work today was like watching a beautiful little flower opening up."
Raikkonen subsequently pipped his time, however, and later Alonso as good as admitted that he really expects to finish no higher than seventh after the pit stops this afternoon. Look for the Spaniard to be one of the first to stop to refuel.
Massa, meanwhile, also had a confession to make. "I just could not put a lap together in the second try," the Bahrain winner said. "I did in the first, but it was too early. But it's OK, we have a good car and we should have an interesting race tomorrow. It was tricky but that's the way it is, when you have such close competition you can lose a place in an easy way."
Off track, the rumblings about beleaguered FIA president Max Mosley's private activities continued when the president of Spain's motorsports federation was critical in the 68-year-old's absence from the grand prix.
"It's not the best moment to do something anti-racism with Max involved. I'm delighted that he is not here," Carlos Gracia said on Friday. "I think he's done a great job for the sport. But under the circumstances, his attitude and personal life has caused major damage to FIA's image. It's the president's job to give off a certain image."
Gracia refused to be drawn on whether he supported Mosley's intention to continue as FIA president, but welcomed his pledge to step down in October 2009. "It's one thing to say it and another to actually do it," Gracia said. "I think the FIA need a definite change. Everything needs to be stabilised. It will be very hard for him to survive this. He's damaged the FIA a lot with this. They are an entity that needs to send out an image of credibility."
There was more bad news when Israel's minister for science, culture and sport withdrew an invitation for Mosley to visit the country to discuss the future of motorsport. Galeb Majadle said that the invitation was not meant to be personal but extended to the FIA as an organisation.
"Once the scandal was brought to the minister's attention, he has requested to withdraw immediately any official invitation to Mosley until the matter is reviewed more thoroughly once back in Israel," a statement said.
On Saturday, a meeting of the teams included a heated discussion between one representative and Bernie Ecclestone as they debated signing a letter calling upon Mosley to resign before the image of the sport suffers further damage in the eyes of their sponsors.
1. Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1min 21.813sec
2. Fernando Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:21.904
3. Felipe Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:22.058
4. Robert Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:22.065
5. Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:22.096
6. Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:22.231
7. Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:22.429
8. Jarno Trulli (It) Toyota 1:22.529
9. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:22.542
10. Nelson Piquet Jr (Br) Renault 1:22.699
11. Rubens Barrichello (Br) Honda 1:21.049
12. Kazuki Nakajima (Japan) Williams-Toyota 1:21.117
13. Jenson Button (GB) Honda 1:21.211
14. Timo Glock (Ger) Toyota 1:21.230
15. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota 1:21.349
16. Sebastien Bourdais (Fr) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:21.724
17. David Coulthard (GB) Red Bull-Renault 1:21.810
18. Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:22.108
19. Giancarlo Fisichella (It) Force India-Ferrari 1:22.516
20. Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India-Ferrari 1:23.224
21. Anthony Davidson (GB) Super Aguri-Honda 1:23.318
22. Takuma Sato (Japan) Super Aguri-Honda 1:23.496