They sat there in the spotlight, and the emotions chased themselves across their faces. Relief. Dis- belief. Exhilaration. Satisfaction. Jenson Button, handsome, with his shaggy beard and ready smile, and now a fourth pole position to celebrate. Rubens Barrichello, craggy now in a manner befitting his status as the sport's veteran, with the second front-row slot.
Not since Max Mosley and Robin Herd's maverick March team burst on to the scene in South Africa in 1970 had a new F1 outfit started from the front row on their debut. What made it even sweeter was that three months ago the team didn't even know if they had jobs, following Honda's withdrawal. Man, they must be steaming with themselves back in the boardroom in Tokyo.
Here in Australia, the new team owner, Ross Brawn, a passionate angler, was beaming as though he had just landed the biggest fish of his life. And in a sense he had, for that very morning Sir Richard Branson had inked a sponsorship contact.
Welcome to F1, 2009 style.
All those myriad regulation changes that were designed to slow the cars down? Well, Button's pole undercut Lewis Hamilton's from 2008 by half a second. But the other aim was to stir things up, and the new rules certainly achieved that. The leading Ferrari was Felipe Massa's in a humbling sixth place on the grid. Hamilton, the reigning world champion, of course, will start back in 18th in a gripless McLaren.
Third place on the grid went to the Red Bull upstart Sebastian Vettel, fourth to BMW-Sauber's Robert Kubica, ahead of Nico Rosberg, who had set the pace throughout practice. Originally sixth and eighth were the fancied Toyotas of Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari and Vettel's partner, local boy Mark Webber. But after qualifying the two Toyotas were moved to the back of the grid when their rear wings were found to contravene rules on flexibility, while Williams withdrew a protest against the sidepod design of the Ferrari and Red Bull cars.
Brawn had been the pacesetters ever since they started testing, but going fast in the winter is not always the same as going fast at races. "It seemed like a lot of cars were setting a similar pace, which is what surprised me," Button admitted, but some may have been running light on fuel, planning three refuelling stops instead of the usual two.
The Brawns maintained their dominance, some of which is due to a trick design of diffuser that had Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault up in arms on Thursday until the race stewards said the cars were legal. The latter three teams have protested, and the matter will be settled once and for all by the FIA International Court of Appeal in Paris on 14 April, after next weekend's Malaysian GP, but for now the "D class" cars were free to exploit their designers' cunning.
"The last five or six months for us have been so tough," Button said, "so going from not having a drive, or any future in racing, to putting it on pole here is just amazing." He played second fiddle to Barrichello when they ran low fuel loads in the first and second qualifying sessions, but came into his own in the third, when teams run with race fuel loads.
"This morning the pace seemed to be pretty good and I was reasonably happy," Button continued, "but you don't know other people's pace until qualifying, and they seemed closer than I'd thought. I was struggling on low fuel, couldn't get the car right, and then it felt more normal with fuel aboard for the final session.
"It's been a long time since we had a car that's been competitive, since we got pole here in 2006. There's been a lot of people who've stood beside us and a few who don't believe in us any more, but the team do and that's what mattered. It's a good car, but you still have to get the most from it."
What greater contrast could there have been in fortunes for Button and Hamilton? The latter's qualifying was a disaster as a broken gear forced a gearbox change. "Something broke on the rear of my car on my second flying lap in Q1 [the first qualifying session]," Lewis explained. "I just lost all drive in the gearbox and couldn't continue. But I'm determined to drive an attacking race – we'll have some fun."
With a 5pm start here the race is run almost in the twilight zone. "It'll be difficult with shade and low sun, and this is a park circuit, so there's a lot of trees with sun shining through them," Button said reflectively. "But it's obviously easier from the front than from the back."
How long he has waited to be in a position to say that.
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