When the heavens opened just before qualifying here in Sepang yesterday, it turned the grid on its head and set the scene for a potentially great race this afternoon.
"We lost some big scalps in the first session, which just goes to show how sensitive it all was on timing," Mark Webber remarked after taking the third pole position of his career. And it was to the likeable Australian's eternal credit that he did not smirk at the thought of Jenson Button starting 17th, Fernando Alonso 19th, Lewis Hamilton 20th and Felipe Massa 21st. Yikes. Just what was going on here?
The heavy shower just before the first session created a jumbled grid, and prompted Toro Rosso's technical director, Giorgio Ascanelli, to comment: "Malaysian rain is like English tea; it comes around five and it's the same temperature." But down at McLaren and Ferrari they misread that and nobody felt like laughing. By the time they marshalled their forces and got their men out on to the track in Q1, the rain had increased.
"We thought the first rainstorm was it, and there was nothing else coming, so we waited," said Button, the hero of Melbourne who ended the session beached in a gravel bed. "I guess events proved it was the wrong thing to do. My first lap on intermediate rain tyres felt OK. The thing is, you get no real warning; the first sector of the lap was quite dry, then you get to the fast left-right and it's really wet. I just aquaplaned off and got stuck in the gravel. I could not do anything about it.
"It was a strange, disappointing session. But, even so, I'm in front of three of my world championship rivals on the grid, and I suppose that's the best way of looking at it."
Hamilton has been really pushing all weekend, intent on stamping his authority after last weekend's misfortunes. He was quick all through practice and told his team: "Don't touch the car. It's so fantastic I don't know what else to do to it!" But it all went wrong yesterday afternoon. "By the time I got out there, there were lots of yellow flags, so you just couldn't nail it," he said glumly. "Then it started to rain more heavily. You couldn't feel a thing, it was so, so slippery. It was easy to come off – I had a spin on my first lap, in fact – but I did the best job I could in the circumstances.
"I'd been fastest all weekend, but what can we do? We've just got to shrug it off. As I always say, I'll never give up. That's why I'm not only focusing on the fast cars around me, I'm focusing on everyone – including those who are quite a few rows in front of me. I'm looking forward to it, and I'm going to race my heart out."
Well, that's good news for us, the silver lining within the rain cloud, because we all know how spectacular it is when F1's fastest man really gets on it. And with Button, Alonso and Massa all intent on coming through, there is plenty of scope for drama, whether the rain comes early or not.
Webber made up for his incident-strewn race last weekend, and his pole was the result of good judgement between himself and engineer Ciaron Pilbeam, who gambled right and were the only combo to run intermediates tyres in the final session.
"It was a very tricky session for everyone," Webber said. "In Q2 on intermediates, you needed a canoe, it was absolutely undriveable in those conditions. Kamui [Kobayashi] spun in front of me and I had to go round him, but thankfully that lap got me through to Q3. Ciaron and I made the call for inters because we felt it was worth trying. It was starting to spit a little at the end, I was aware I was the only guy on inters, the black sheep of the top 10, but it turned out it was the right tyre and I kept it on black stuff."
The first man to congratulate him was team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, who started the last two races on pole for his team but ran into problems with a spark plug in Bahrain and the left front wheel drive pegs in Australia. One way or another, the Red Bulls must win this one to get back in the championship game, and with their rivals so far back today, they have a golden opportunity.
"There was a lot of water, the cars are low, and we ended up swimming more than driving today," Vettel remarked. In other words, it was just like China last year. When he won and Webber rode shotgun.Reuse content