McLaren locked out the front row of the grid for the European Grand Prix at Valencia with Lewis Hamilton leading Heikki Kovalainen.
But it could have been the other way around if Kovalainen hadn’t blown his final shot at a lap.
And it was bad news for Ferrari’s Luca Badoer, who starts tomorrow’s race from last on the grid having been 1.5s slower than everyone else.
Brawn looked to have rediscovered their former pace in practice – which was at least partly thanks to the hot temperatures at Valencia. Qualifying began under clear skies with track temperatures in the mid-40s.
Heikki Kovalainen went fastest to begin with, using the long wheelbase version of the MP4/24 which was theoretically 0.2s slower per lap than Lewis Hamilton’s new short wheelbase version. Hamilton took until halfway through the session to do his first lap, and when he did he briefly went quickest of all, with a 1’39.198.
But he was immediately pegged back by Rubens Barrichello, whose 1’39.019 was further proof of Brawn’s return to front-running pace.
At the opposite end of the grid newcomers Romain Grosjean (Renault) and Luca Badoer (Ferrari) were trying to avoid being eliminated in the first session. Badoer’s struggle from practice continued – he was 19th and 1.8s down on Raikkonen’s best effort with five minutes remaining. Grosjean, however, posted a 1’39.322 just one minute after Alonso had done a 1’39.603.
As the session drew to a close there were some surprising names hovering around the drop zone – Jenson Button was 15th and Mark Webber 16th. But Kazuki Nakajima in 13th stopped on the track, leaving him highly vulnerable to dropping out of qualifying. Sure enough, as Webber and Button improved, Nakajima was squeezed out of qualifying.
While Sebastien Buemi made a late leap to third place, team mate Alguersuari was eliminated and takes up the back row of the grid along with Badoer. Jarno Trulli’s Toyota was also knocked out while team mate Timo Glock scraped through. Nakajima and Fisichella were the other two drivers that failed to reach Q2.
Drivers eliminated in Q1
16. Giancarlo Fisichella, Force India-Mercedes – 1’39.531
17. Kazuki Nakajima, Williams-Toyota – 1’39.795
18. Jarno Trulli, Toyota – 1’39.807
19. Jaime Alguersuari, Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1’39.925
20. Luca Badoer, Ferrari – 1’41.413
The McLaren-Brawn battle at the top of the times continued in Q2, with the Red Bulls struggling to get a look in. Hamilton took up the early running ahead of Barrichello and Kovalainen.
As in the first session, Alonso waited a long time to set his first lap – leaving the pits for the first time with just six minutes left on the clock. His first effort – a 1’38.853 – was not quick enough to get him in the top ten, leaving him 11th and 0.2s faster than Grosjean.
Lewis Hamilton elected not to join the rush to set a final lap time at the end of the session, sitting on top of the times with a 1’38.182 and saving a set of super-soft tyres that would come in handy later. The only driver to beat his time was Barrichello, improving on it by one tenth of a second.
The difference between reaching Q3 and missing out was razor-thin. Fernando Alonso made a late improvement to grab eighth, but was only one tenth quicker than Nick Heidfeld, 11th. Just 0.04s separated Heidfeld from Raikkonen, who scraped into Q3. Also knocked out were Sutil, Glock, Grosjean and Buemi.
Drivers eliminated in Q2
11. Nick Heidfeld, BMW – 1’38.826
12. Adrian Sutil, Force India-Mercedes – 1’38.846
13. Timo Glock, Toyota – 1’38.991
14. Romain Grosjean, Renault – 1’39.040
15. Sebastien Buemi, Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1’39.514
Lewis Hamilton went straight back to the top of the times with his first lap, his 1’39.498 putting him half a second clear of Jenson Button, using new super-soft tyres.
Webber, Vettel and Barrichello all opted to do a single lap each. Barrichello’s first effort gave him second – but only until Kovalainen came through and took the place off him, 0.03s slower than team mate Hamilton.
Kovalainen carried on for a second lap and nailed the first two sectors, quicker than anyone else. But he took too much kerb in the bend approaching the final corner and ran wide. That mistake cost him what looked set to be a pole-winning lap, although Hamilton was on course to set a better time, but aborted once the Kovalainen threat was gone.
Tomorrow the championship battle will be played out behind the McLarens – with Webber down in ninth place and facing a challenge to get ahead of Button.
Update: Fuel weights published – Strategy could hand Barrichello an advantage (European Grand Prix fuel weights)
Top ten drivers in Q3
1. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren-Mercedes – 1’39.498
2. Heikki Kovalainen, McLaren-Mercedes – 1’39.532
3. Rubens Barrichello, Brawn-Mercedes – 1’39.563
4. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull-Renault – 1’39.789
5. Jenson Button, Brawn-Mercedes – 1’39.821
6. Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1’40.144
7. Nico Rosberg, Williams-Toyota – 1’40.185
8. Fernando Alonso, Renault – 1’40.236
9. Mark Webber, Red Bull-Renault – 1’40.239
10. Robert Kubica, BMW – 1’40.512