For a guy who does not even know if he will keep his drive at Williams next year, it had to be an emotional moment for 23-year-old German Nico Hülkenberg. Of course, the former GP2 champion is inevitably known as "The Hulk", and yesterday in tricky, damp but drying conditions at Interlagos he became "The Incredible Hulk" as he simply pounded his opposition in his unfancied Williams-Cosworth.
He had been fast all weekend, but nobody expected him to upstage the duelling title contenders, all of whom line up right behind him apart from Jenson Button whose chances of hanging on to his crown appear slim as he qualified only 11th.
The battle for grid positions had started with the threat of heavy rain, sending everyone out on Bridgestone's intermediate tyres for the first session. Fernando Alonso set the pace with 1min 18.987sec from Webber and Vettel (1:19.925 and 1:19.160)
The rain still held off for the second stage of qualifying (Q2), in which Webber was fastest in 1:18.516 from Vettel and Renault's Robert Kubica, but Button got bumped as local hero Felipe Massa's lap of 1:19.200 trumped his 1:19.288.
Going into Q3, Hamilton, Vettel, Webber and Alonso still looked the danger men. The weather was showing signs of improvement, and though everyone stuck to intermediates for their first runs, where Hamilton was fastest with 1:17.212, the emergence of a dry line encouraged the idea of slicks for their final sorties. The first fast time on them fell to Hülkenberg, in 1:16.373. Fine, he would soon be supplanted, the sages said. And sure enough, there was Hamilton, cutting down to 1:16.274 for McLaren, then Alonso, slamming round in 1:15.989. But there was Hülkenberg again, 1:15.462.
Everybody began to sit up and take notice, for this was clearly the start of something special. Gradually, the hotshots crept close to him: Hamilton did 1:15.747; Webber 1:15.637; Vettel 1:15.519, but then the blue Williams went faster to seal his first pole position by a full second.
"I came to F1 for a reason, you know," Hülkenberg gently chided the incredulous. "My engineer told me I had one lap left, so I really tried to squeeze something out of it. The conditions were very tricky and it was so easy to make a mistake, but that last one was spot-on." The result was an amazing 1: 14.470.
"It was all about timing this afternoon," Vettel said. "It really was a very tricky session and it was a tough call for slicks because the last sector was still pretty damp in places even though it was getting better and better. At first I thought that I had missed pole by a tenth, but then I saw the other digits. So congratulations to Nico. He was better than all of us today. And I'm very happy to be second."
Hülkenberg sat between the Red Bull drivers, smiling shyly. "It's amazing and I still don't believe that I've done it," he admitted. "I'm just enjoying the moment. It's emotional and I hope to be in F1 for many years, but right now there are no words to say. I'm still shaking from all the laps, the thrill of them, and am just realising what we've done."
Webber, like Vettel and Hamilton, enjoyed the challenge, and was happy with third, especially as Alonsois fifth behind Hamilton, who won't be minded to give the Ferrari driver any help. "It would have been very easy to get things wrong, so I'm very happy to be tight towards the front," Webber said. "It was very close between Seb and I, but Nico got his tyres working well and was very confident. Good on him."
The forecast is for dry conditions today, so what will happen? Will The Hulk quickly be overwhelmed? Will Webber get a better start on the cleaner side of the grid? What about Hamilton and Alonso? Might Vettel concede to Webber in the title chase?
"I could give you answers to every scenario but we would be here all night," Vettel smiled. It was time to forget the pointless speculation and let the racing speak for itself. This afternoon in Interlagos there's going to be a lot of it.
1. N Hülkenberg (Ger) Williams-Cosworth 1min 14.470sec; 2. S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull-Renault 1:15.519; 3. M Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault 1:15.637; 4. L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:15.747; 5. F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:15.989; 6. R Barrichello (Br) Williams-Cosworth 1:16.203; 7. R Kubica (Pol) Renault 1:16.552; 8. M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes 1:16.925; 9. F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:17.101; 10. V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:17.656; 11. J Button (GB) McLaren 1:19.288; 12. K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:19.385; 13. N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes 1:19.486; 14. J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:19.581; 15. N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber-Ferrari 1:19.899; 16. V Liuzzi (It) Force India-Mercedes 1:20.357; 17. T Glock (Ger) Virgin-Cosworth; 18. J Trulli (It) Lotus-Cosworth 1:22.250; 19. H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus-Cosworth 1:22.378; 20. S Buemi* (Swit) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:19.847; 21. L Di Grassi (Br) Virgin-Cosworth 1:22.810; 22. C Klien (Aut) HRT-Cosworth 1:23.083; 1:22.130; 23. A Sutil* (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:20.830; 24. B Senna (Br) HRT-Cosworth 1:23.796.
* Buemi and Sutil have five-place grid penalties