One year ago, Lewis Hamilton caused a sensation when he qualified fourth on his Formula One debut for McLaren-Mercedes. This time around there was an inevitability about the seventh pole position of his career, and it spoke volumes for the dram-atic progress he has made in those intervening 12 months. His 2008 World Championship campaign could not have got off to a better start.
In practice on Friday, he and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen – his 2007 title nemesis – had traded fastest laps, but even if the Finn's red machine had not suffered a glitch at the end of the first of three qualifying sessions yester-day, Hamilton and his silver dream machine looked in prettygood shape.
He lost no time stamping his calm authority in the first runs of the final session, which this year takes the form of a rapid-fire 10-minute shoot-out with none of the unpopular "fuel burning" lappery of previous years. For a while in the second and final runs, however, Robert Kubica looked a genuine threat in a BMW-Sauber that might have been running a bit lighter on fuel. The Pole slammed his white-and-blue car round with the abandon which is fast becoming his trademark, but he lost time when he ran on to the dirt exiting Turn 12, and finished in 1 min 26.869sec. Hamilton was much smoother, the result was 1:26.714, and pole was his.
"I couldn't have wished for a better start to the season," Hamilton said with a huge smile, "and it's great to see my friend Robert doing well. The team have done a super job in getting all the necessary parts ready in time.
"During Q1 I was held up in traffic, but everything just came together when it mattered in Q3. The track conditions were abit easier today compared to yesterday, as it wasn't as hot."
This year drivers cannot rely on traction control, and that could influence the start. "I think it will be interesting due to the change in the regulations," Hamilton suggested. "Last year it was relatively easy, whereas now it's dependent on the driver, so I want to get that right. FortunatelyI am starting on the clean side of the track for once, and hopefully that will help a bit, but it will be a long and tough race."
While McLaren celebrated, with one car fastest and Ham-ilton's new team-mate, Heikki Kovalainen, backing him strongly with third place, BMW- Sauber smiled happily as Ferrarilicked their wounds.
"P2 is a great achievement for the whole team, and that's a good start to the season," Kubica said. "I took a lot of risks in the second run of Q3, but that [slip] cost me between two and three tenths of a second and maybe pole."
The Ferrari is possibly the fastest thing out there, but things began to go wrong for the champion team when Raikkonen trickled to a crawl at the end of the first qualifying session and just made it to the pit lane beforehis Ferrari stopped. The team said it was a problem with the electronic fuel pump.
Article 33.2 of the Sporting Regulations forbids a car to participate further in qualifying if it stops out on the track, so Raikkonen was finished for the afternoon and resigned himself to 16th place on the grid.
His team-mate, Felipe Massa, went into the second and third sessions upholding the honour of the Prancing Horse alone. Fifth-fastest time in the second was enough to get him through to the final shoot-out, but when it mattered in the dying moments of qualifying the little Brazilian admitted that he did not get the best out of his final set of tyres after encountering traffic and failing to generate the necessary temperatures in them.
Given the superiority of the Ferraris over most of their opposition, neither problem was insurmountable, but the team's campaign did not get off to the start everyone had expected.
"Clearly I am disappointed," Raikkonen said. "These things happen, but it's definitely not the best way to start the season." Already, the champion's focus had slipped from chasing a likely second consecutive victory here to scoring the best points he could muster.
1 Lewis Hamilton, (GB), McLaren-Mercedes, 1min 26.714sec.
2 Robert Kubica, (Pol), BMW-Sauber, 1:26.869.
3 Heikki Kovalainen, (Fin), McLaren-Mercedes, 1:27.079.
4 Felipe Massa, (Bra), Ferrari, 1:27.178.
5 Nick Heidfeld, (Ger), BMW-Sauber, 1:27. 236.
6 Jarno Trulli, (Ita), Toyota, 1:28. 527.
7 Nico Rosberg, (Ger), Williams, 1:28.687.
8 David Coulthard, (GB), Red Bull, 1:29.041.
9 Timo Glock, (Ger), Toyota, 1:29.593.
10 Sebastian Vettel, (Ger), Toro Rosso, did not start.
Eliminated after second session:
11 Rubens Barrichello, (Bra), Honda, 1:26.173.
12 Fernando Alonso, (Spa), Renault, 1:26.188.
13 Jenson Button, (GB), Honda, 1:26.259.
14 Kazuki Nakajima, (Jap), Williams, 1:26.413.
15 Mark Webber, (Aus), Red Bull, did not finish.
16 Kimi Raikkonen, (Fin), Ferrari, did not start.
Eliminated after first session:
17 Giancarlo Fisichella, (Ita), Force India, 1:27.207.
18 Sebastien Bourdais, (Fra), Toro Rosso, 1:27.446.
19 Adrian Sutil, (Ger), Force India, 1:27.859.
20 Takuma Sato, (Jap), Super Aguri, 1:28.208.
21 Nelson Piquet Jr, (Bra), Renault, 1:28.330.
22 Anthony Davidson, (GB), Super Aguri, 1:29.059.