They came to Valencia uncertain where they might end up on the grid, which seems odd when you are talking about the championship contenders Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton, who make a habit of starting near the front. But such is the speed with which fortunes can change in a great year of Formula One that none of them could be sure their cars would be as competitive here as they have been elsewhere.
Valencia was where Ferrari, Renault and Williams would introduce their interpretation of Red Bull's "blown" diffuser, which guides hot air from the exhausts to enhance airflow over the downforce-generating diffuser, thus increasing grip level.
Red Bull, meanwhile, had developed their F duct, a device which stalls airflow over the rear wing at the drivers' instigation along the straights, thus momentarily reducing downforce and drag to boost top speed. McLaren came up with this device first and it has helped them to four strong victories so far, but their own blown diffuser is not due until Silverstone, so they were expecting that a few rivals might jump them here.
Following so far? It sounds like the beginning of that old television comedy Soap, but that's the way F1 is right now. Stand still for a moment when it comes to technical development and you fly backwards faster than a runner losing grip on a treadmill.
Vettel and Hamilton both got laps wrong in the crucial last session of qualifying, which had already seen Nico "Britney" Rosberg and Michael "Say Goodnight" Schumacher consigned to the outer darkness of 12th and 15th places in their Mercedes. Vettel's mistake came on his first run. "On my first run I had a huge moment in the first sector," he admitted, "so I said, OK, put everything into the second run and it worked. I'm on pole and I'm very happy.
"The last couple of races have been tough," he continued. "Canada and Valencia shouldn't be our strongest circuits, so it's good to be able to put the car on pole. It was a tight session, with not much between us all. It's a very tough one here, and we reintroduced our F duct; the mechanics only got an hour or two of sleep, so it's good to say thank you this way."
Hamilton, by contrast, got his good run in first, then screwed up on the second. "I'll tell you what, I'm really happy with P3," Hamilton said, a big smile denoting his relief. "We knew everyone else would be quicker with updates, and we saw from practice that we were quite a long way behind. So we had to push on the limit but also be a little cautious, and I didn't expect to be so far up.
"We thought it might be a damage- limitation weekend, but it hasn't turned out that way. The car felt good yesterday but it just wasn't fast enough. We thought we had to get every little ounce out of the car, then a little bit more if possible to lift me from seventh to sixth.
"But through the session the car was feeling great, we made some good set-up changes, found some good gaps [in traffic], and put together a good lap. On the second I definitely had half a second in my pocket until I locked the rear wheels a couple of times. I thought for sure that I would drop back down the order as a result, so I was real surprised still to be so high up."
In between them was the indefatigable Mark Webber, the sportsman's sportsman, as reliable these days as a Rolex watch and just about as smooth. Time and again this year he has found the Red Bull's sweet spot, and though Vettel aced him for the first time in a while, he was still in a good place in second on the grid.
"I'm very optimistic to have a good race," he said. "I wasn't quick enough today, and I'm not going to roll out a list of excuses. That's the way it was." He has not qualified any lower than second since Bahrain.
"Yeah, and this isn't one of my best circuits," he said. "I've had a shit run here in the past, so I'm happy to be second. Seb [Vettel] has been strong here in the past and so far this weekend. I'd have liked the positions to be reversed, but it's good for me, and a sensational day for the team if you look how hard the guys have been pushing. It was a good, uneventful qualifying session."
With Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa fourth and fifth in their revitalised Ferraris, ahead of Robert Kubica's improved Renault and Jenson Button's McLaren, the first few laps should make for some great watching.