From last to fast, former Honda teammates -- now for Brawn GP -- Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello (rhymes with happy fellow) on Saturday swept the front row during qualifying for Sunday's Grand Prix of Australia.
They will line up ahead of Red Bull's first-year driver Sebastian Vettel, BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, Williams F1's Nico Rosberg, who was quickest through three free practices, Toyota's Timo Glock, Ferrari's Felipe Massa, Toyota's Jarno Trulli, Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen, and Red Bull's Mark Webber, who rounded out the group that battled for pole position.
Filling the field will be BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld, Renault's Fernando Alonso, Williams F1's Kazuki Nakajima, McLaren Mercedes's Heikki Kovalainen and Lewis Hamilton, Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi, Renault's Nelson Piquet, Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil, and Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais.
Brawn GP's overnight success story nearly a year in the making wildly improved the fortunes of the driving pair who endured a pig-dog of a Honda RA108 and were the lowest-scoring teammates in 2008 after team principal Ross Brawn opted to spend most of the season developing the '09 car. That Honda would abandon the sport a month after the season ended stunned the drivers, who spent the offseason out of F1 until Brawn and CEO Nick Fry effected an 11th-hour buyout. Barrichello especially was assaulted by stories whose authors were cocksure the Brazilian, 36, would lose his seat to twenty-something compatriot Bruno Senna when the team was revived.
"The last five or six months for us, both of us, have been so tough," said Button, Australian pole winner in 2006. "Going from not having a drive -- or any future in racing -- to putting it on pole here is just amazing, it really is."
Brawn GP, on all of two weeks of testing, made the grid through the willingness of Mercedes to supply engines and Force India boss Vijay Mallya to allow it. Engine suppliers can offer their goods to two teams only without special consent. Pole position from a debut effort was last seen in 1970, when Jackie Stewart put the March 701 on pole in South Africa, where he finished third.
"I just wanted to emphasize what Jenson said," Barrichello said. "It's been a critical three, four months back home waiting for news. I'm really, really happy to be here. I need to congratulate Ross and Nick for what an outstanding job, and everyone who has touched this car needs the credit because it's a really good car. So, well done to the boys back in England as well.
"First row is a credit and we must be happy."
Barrichello said his car, unlike Button's, was "fantastic" on low fuel, but he developed an understeer in the final qualifying session that is the pole run.
The Brawn GP drivers were the only ones in the field able to drop below 1 minute, 25 seconds. Both turned sub-1:25s in second qualifying, typically the fastest of three qualifying sessions, owing to low fuel. Button said his car did not perform as well on low fuel and came right when race-level fuel was added for third qualifying. Barrichello's 1:24.750 was the day's fastest time. Button's pole time was a 1:25.202 on the 3.29-mile track.
Button arrived in Australia as bookmaker's favorite to win.
Vettel looked through practice and parts of qualifying as though he would not be able to best his veteran teammate, Webber, who shot to the top of timesheets in the first session. Coming off a broken leg suffered in late November, Webber was seen hobbling in the pit lane Thursday.
"Difficult two days up to qualifying," Vettel said. "Yesterday, I had only the pleasure of one lap in the first practice and then in the second practice I did a mistake and, unfortunately, we could not complete our program. Also this morning we had a failure, which cost us some track time, so anything but ideal, but I think we put everything together."
The Brawn GP BGP 001s were one of three teams' cars to be protested by the next-best qualifying team, Red Bull. A protest against the diffuser designs of Brawn GP, Toyota and Williams F1 was shunted aside by scrutineers Thursday but has been appealed. That appeal, which could change the outcome of this race and next week's event in Malaysia, will be heard April 14 in Paris by the sanctioning body, the FIA. Five of the six Diffuser 3 drivers challenged for pole.
The Ferraris were clearly the best of the K cars, Kubica driving a BMW Sauber F1.09 not equipped with KERS, the optional kinetic energy recovery system whose effectiveness will only up only in racing. Kubica teammate Heidfeld did not emerge from second qualifying, nor did Renault's Alonso or the McLaren drivers. Piquet in the second Renault was the only KERS driver not to reach second qualifying.
Rosberg, Nakajima, Raikkonen, Alonso, Webber and Barrichello each turned in fastest lap during first session, when two seconds covered the field.
Fewer runners snagged top time in second qualifying. When it ended, both McLarens were gone, Kovalainen only placing ahead of teammate Hamilton by virtue of Hamilton running no laps because the MP4-24 lost drive. Nakajima suffered the ignominy of being the only runner among the Diffuser 3 not to reach final qualifying.
In a disappointing reversion to form, first cut swiped both Toro Rossos and both Force Indias, Piquet's Renault was also caught out as 20 minutes wasn't time enough to improve on a 1:25.598. The message sent from every car they let him test confirms that Buemi is a Coming Man. He missed second qualifying by a tenth, but his teammate Bourdais was an anchor, two tenths slower than the 19th qualifier, Sutil. Fisichella outqualified his teammate, just.
Drivers mentioned low shadows on the park-road circuit presented vision difficulties. The race will be the sport's first yet contested at twilight.