Wheels start to come off for Button

Championship leader skids down to 14th as Fisichella stuns paddock with Force India's first pole position
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Remember the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about the little guy who wins big? Well, there were similarities in Spa yesterday as Force India's driver Giancarlo Fisichella caused a major upset by putting their car on pole for the first time in qualifying for today's Belgian Grand Prix. But it was not quite the same scenario because owner Vijay Mallya is not an underdog in his homeland and there have been persistent allegations in the paddock recently that he has been late with significant payments to Ferrari and McLaren for engine supply. There were even suggestions of legal action against him in Valencia last weekend, where he offended creditors by bringing the biggest yacht into the harbour.

Nevertheless, there were broad smiles everywhere as "Fisi", dismal all season, suddenly came alive to make the most of a new aerodynamic package. And, purely coincidentally, to stake a valid claim to Luca Badoer's seat at Ferrari.

It was an afternoon for underdogs, for right behind Force India came Jarno Trulli for Toyota and Nick Heidfeld for BMW Sauber. Though Toyota insist they will not be quitting F1, they are said to be shedding 700 jobs before the end of the year, while Peter Sauber is desperately trying to pick up the pieces and save the team which BMW bought in 2005 and are now set to dump.

You had to look down in fourth place for the first of the quartet of world championship contenders, and there was the smiling face of Valencia winner Rubens Barrichello. The 37-year-old Brazilian is in form again and looking ever more likely to emerge as Jenson Button's major threat, especially as the points leader's Brawn was in 14th place, two spots behind Lewis Hamilton's McLaren. It sounds disastrous, but when you factor in the the gap between the fastest man in Q2 and the slowest (Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen) was only 0.786sec, you realise just how close F1 is this season. Round a 4.352-mile circuit, that was extraordinary.

"I didn't expect to qualify in 14th position but we really struggled with grip levels, particularly on the softer tyre," Button said glumly, stunned that his team-mate was so much higher up the order. "The car hasn't felt quite right all weekend and I wasn't able to get any more out of it. Rubens and I are usually very closely matched but he was quick on the option and I wasn't. I just couldn't find any grip on the softer rubber so the rear end felt unstable and I had no confidence under braking, particularly in the middle sector. It's strange as our set-ups are different, but not by much. It's going to be very tough in the race from here but at least we have more time to choose our strategy. We need to get it right and see if we can score some points tomorrow."

Looking at the top three the conspiracy theorists – read rival team principals – had a field day, some believing that Bernard Charles Ecclestone had somehow waved a magic wand to spice things up and get Fisi firmly fixed in Ferrari's psyche as their second driver at Monza in a fortnight's time. Truth is, even Bernie could not have orchestrated a better session. Though fuel loads undoubtedly played a role in the last part of qualifying, the Force India had been very quick in Q1 and Q2 when everyone was running similar amounts, and the improvement in performance was genuine.

"I don't know how I did it, it's unbelievable," said Fisichella as he celebrated the fourth pole of a largely unfulfilled career. "I certainly didn't expect it, especially after yesterday when I had a lot of understeer and we had poor downforce measurements. This morning we went through all the problems and the car was better, and in qualifying better still. I was able to be fastest in Q1, fourth in Q2 and now on pole. It's amazing, fantastic."

And then an idea struck him. "This morning I hit a rabbit, and my engineers told me in England when you do something with a rabbit it brings you luck, and now I am on pole. So next time I will go round the circuit to find another rabbit."

It looks increasingly likely that he will be doing that in a red car, after another feeble performance from Felipe Massa's stand-in, Badoer, who again qualified last after spinning into the gravel on his final run of Q1.

"It's always a dream for drivers in F1 and other categories to drive for Ferrari, especially an Italian driver," Fisichella agreed. "But I am just concentrated on the Force India and I don't want to think anything about the next race whether I am there or at Force India, but I have a contract with Force India and not with Ferrari."

Now that is something that Bernie can sort out.