Wary Ecclestone keeps low profile

F1 supremo stays away as McLaren pair fail to make most of sodden conditions to trail Alonso

hockenheim

As lousy weather made for another overcast Formula One weekend, the primary diversion in the paddock was playing "Where's Bernie?"

It is not unusual for Bernie Ecclestone to miss a race and it is quite likely that he will turn up today, but his apparent absence through to last night generated much speculation following widespread reports in the German newspapers that prosecutors in Munich are preparing an official investigation into his role in the recent case against the banker Gerhard Gribkowsky.

The latter was jailed three weeks ago for eight-and-a-half years for tax evasion, breach of trust and his claim that he accepted a $44 million (£28m) bribe from Ecclestone, and the reports say that Ecclestone could now face arrest in Germany.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton jokingly urged reporters not to blame the weather on the English yesterday, but sixth and seventh places weren't really a laughing matter for McLaren ahead of a race they must win to stay in the World Championship hunt. Especially as the points leader, Fernando Alonso, took pole position, with his closest rivals, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, second and third.

But, unlike the weather, the situation wasn't all doom and gloom for the McLaren duo yesterday. Poor old Webber, the winner of a British Grand Prix panned after the chaos caused by similar weather during its first two days, had a gearbox problem yesterday morning that required the unit to be changed and was thus dropped five places on the grid.

Button will start sixth, separated from the top two by the in-form Michael Schumacher, who proved again that there is life yet in the old hound, and emergent hot shoes Nico Hulkenberg of Force India and Pastor Maldonado of Williams. Hamilton starts seventh, with Webber alongside him and Hulkenberg's team-mate, Paul Di Resta, in ninth.

The weather played all the tricks it could once Kimi Raikkonen had set the pace in Q1. Q2 was held in a downpour from which Hamilton easily emerged the fastest, but when the rain increased in Q3 the McLarens were found wanting.

"We were looking good until it got really wet and all of a sudden had no grip," Hamilton said. "It's about getting temperature into the tyres. We looked good in Q1 in the dry, and in Q2 in the wet so I don't really understand how everyone else went so fast in Q3. Maybe if I'd had one more lap I would have been higher, but when I really pushed it was like driving on ice."

Ferrari's strategy was to change to fresh Pirelli extreme-wet weather tyres part way through, and on them Alonso was able to set two fastest lap times to suppress the Red Bull challenge.

The Spaniard was one of many who felt that the conditions were marginal in terms of safety, but you would never have known it from the performance he gave. "It was very on the limit in the conditions and sometimes we have to look at that," he said. "In Q3 in Turn Six we were going 280-290kph and it was not easy.

"We backed off a little bit in those aquaplaning moments but the rest of the lap was clean. It was a good strategy to make a pitstop to take fresh tyres, which helped a lot to improve the lap time."

Vettel felt that he lost out after being inadvertently held up by Webber, who would never have seen his team-mate in the spray behind him, and that with a slightly smoother run he could have fought for pole position. "He probably didn't see me, but two laps from the end of a session you can't back off enough to get the gap so for sure that lost me a little. But the track was at its best at the end. The last lap was not really clean and I lost the car in the rivers. But nevertheless we had the pace today to have put the car on pole."

"We did our best in dodgy conditions," Webber said. "But if, buts, coulda, shoulda, woulda, doesn't count."

Button was relieved with his best qualifying performance for a while. "We struggled to get the tyres to work. When you can't get temperature into the tyre, you don't know its limit. You can't hit the brakes either because you'll lock up. It's an issue we've had for a few races and an area where we need to improve.

"In dry running, the pace is very good. The positives are that our car looks quick then, and that this weekend's upgrade package is a good step forward."

Hamilton agreed, saying: "The great thing here is that you have the DRS down the long back straight, so hopefully I'll be doing some overtaking tomorrow."

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