One moment Lewis Hamilton was savouring a sublime lap. The next, he was contemplating the ridiculous.
After taking pole position by half a second he was told by his team to stop his McLaren on the track after they detected a "technical issue". The team spoke of force majeure but subsequently the stewards deemed that a mechanic forgetting to fuel the car properly did not count as that, and that the team had contravened the rule requiring a car to have sufficient juice to get back to the pits under its own steam.
One might have expected Hamilton's best lap time to be cancelled, and his next best to count, which would have left him sixth on the grid. But he received the ultimate penalty for an error that had nothing to do with him, was excluded from the times altogether and will start from the back of grid. Welcome to the draconian world of F1.
Thus, just before a surprise paddock celebration of Sir Frank Williams's recent 70th birthday, the veteran racer found his Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado sitting on the most extraordinary pole position of the season. If the fact that Hamilton was (once) fastest and team-mate Jenson Button only 11th had highlighted the incredible sensitivity of Formula One's tyre situation, Maldonado's terrific performance doubly underlined it.
This year Pirelli's tyres offer high performance for only a limited time before degrading. It's up to the teams to figure out the optimum chassis set-ups and for the drivers to keep the rubber alive as long as possible. That's part of racing and always has been. But what's significant is that nobody has yet been able to get it right consistently because the tyres' perfect window of operation is so small, just a few degrees either side of the optimum.
McLaren did it in Australia, where Hamilton was on pole and Button won, and in Malaysia, where Hamilton was on pole but then had things upskittled by the rain, which allowed Fernando Alonso and Ferrari to snatch a brilliant opportunist's victory. Then it was Mercedes' turn, spectacularly, in China, as Nico Rosberg scored his first F1 victory.
Last time out, in Bahrain, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were back on top. Now Williams were hot. For the first time this year Pirelli brought tyres that are two compounds apart, with hard and soft rubber rather than hard and medium, or medium and soft. That has made it even harder for teams to get the set-ups absolutely right because there is such a performance and durability difference between the two.
Hamilton had been elated after doing a peerless job and encapsulated the arcane art when he spoke of finding the sweet spot of his car as Button struggled all day to balance his. "That's one of the best sessions I've ever had," Hamilton said, the pleasure on his face a stark contrast to the haunted expression that characterised him last year. "I was really satisfied with that lap. Every time you go out to qualify you search for that perfect lap and I was able to put the car in that sweet spot where you just gain time and don't lose any. It was a fantastic feeling. Overwhelming."
Button, who had been fastest on Friday, said glumly: "I didn't get anywhere near the balance I had yesterday. I had understeer in the high-speed corners and the rear end was very loose in the slow-speed stuff."
Then came the bombshell, and Maldonado's promotion. Maldonado and local hero Alonso thus start from the front row, the Lotuses of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen behind. The Finn is the real dangerman, keen to make amends for bottling his attempted pass of Vettel in Bahrain. And, almost alone of all the front-runners, he doesn't care about the tyres. "They're not causing the change in racing," he declared. "It's because we don't refuel any more. If you'd asked the old Bridgestone tyres to do what we are asking the Pirellis to do, with 160 litres of fuel on board, they'd be degrading at the same rate."
His Lotus's long-run pace and consistency on the soft tyres has been ominously impressive.
1 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:22.285; 2 F Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:22.302; 3 R Grosjean (Swi) Lotus F1 Team 1:22.424; 4 K Raikkonen (Fin) Lotus F1 Team 1:22.487; 5 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:22.533; 6 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:23.005; 7 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull no time; 8 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP no time; 9 K Kobayashi (Jpn) Sauber-Ferrari no time; 10 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:22.944; 11 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:22.977; 12 P Di Resta (GB) Force India 1:23.125; 13 N Hülkenberg (Ger) Force India 1:23.177; 14 JE Vergne (Fra) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:23.265; 15 D Ricciardo (Aus) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:23.442; 16 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 1:23.444; 17 B Senna (Bra) Williams 1:24.981; 18 V Petrov (Rus) Caterham 1:25.277; 19 H Kovalainen (Fin) Caterham 1:25.507; 20 C Pic (Fra) Marussia 1:26.582; 21 T Glock (Ger) Marussia 1:27.032; 22 P de la Rosa (Spa) HRT-F1 1:27.555; 23 N Karthikeyan (Ind) HRT-F1 1:31.122. 24 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1min 21.707secs (excluded)