An economical Lewis Hamilton saved his best for last Saturday, sweeping through the twisty third and final sector of the Hockenheimring to grab pole from pace setter Felipe Massa for Sunday's Formula One German Grand Prix. Hamilton completed 13 laps to qualify, fewest of any runner through to the final session of knockout qualifying.
The Englishman's effort, good for his third pole this season and the ninth of his career, again edged teammate Heikki Kovalainen, eclipsed handy showings from Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso for Toyota and Renault, respectively, and showed once more that as improved and competitive as a number of teams are this season, they are yet to crack the sharp-end stranglehold of McLaren and Ferrari.
"My final lap, I was quite happy with it, to be honest" Hamilton said. "I think it went quite smoothly. I think the first Q3 lap I had was looking out to be a good lap, but then they put the flags out in Turn 12. I think Heikki ran a bit wide on the exit to Turn 12, so I had to be careful I don't get any penalties. I made a big lift and the time wasn't great. But I knew I had it it me. I knew we had the pace. And my lap was pretty smooth, pretty easy-going. I'm quite comfortable we could have gone a little quicker if we'd needed to."
Hamilton, whose quick time is recorded as 1 minute, 15.666 seconds, lines up next to Massa and ahead of teammate Kovalainen who has Trulli at his side on the second row. In the third row, champions row, Alonso takes the "clean" side of the grid next to Kimi Raikkonen. Robert Kubica for BMW Sauber and Mark Webber for Red Bull have the fourth row ahead of the best native qualifier, Sebastian Vettel for Scuderia Toro Rosso, and Red Bull's David Coulthard, who rounds out the drivers who reached the final qualifying session.
The second half of the grid puts Toyota's Timo Glock and BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld on Row 6, Williams's Nico Rosberg and Honda's Jenson Button on Row 7, Sebastien Bourdais for Toro Rosso and Kazuki Nakajima for Williams on 8, Nelsinho Piquet for Renault and Rubens Barrichello for Honda on 9, and the Force Indias of Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella on 10. Qualifying run under overcast skies emphasizes the race still faces a threat of rain.
Massa, still hounded by his spinning display in the wet in Britain two weeks ago, said his front-row appearance wasn't a recovery.
"I think that's not really a recovery," he said. "I know I'm quick. I know all my career was quick in the wet. Even in the go-karts. Always when it rains, I won. To be honest, I don't believe what people say that I'm not good in the wet. I just have a very bad weekend at Silverstone and what it shows today here is not the recovery but what we are able to do, and that's our target, to be competitive, and we are."
Kovalainen shook off off-track adventuring to go second behind Massa before Hamilton completed his flyer and bumped them both. The Finn's bumpy ride threw up a healthy amount of ground as he at least kept headed in the right direction.
"Going into Q3 I was very confident I can be challenging for pole position," Kovalainen said. "But then arriving at Turn 12 in my first lap of Q3 I just lost the rear end and went wide. I don't know what happened there it just suddenly turned in better than before. I think maybe I just tried to go too deep into the corner and I think I damaged a little bit on the right-hand side of the bottom of the car. After I jumped out of the car, I saw a little damage but I didn't feel anything in the car. On the second run, a little bit of rallycross also on the exit of the last turn so I think third place, I'm very happy with that, if you take into account all those rallycross moments today."
Trulli, like Alonso, continues to school his young teammate.
"It was a very good performance so I am really happy," Trulli said. "The car handled very well and we made many small changes through the session to get closer and closer to the perfect balance. At the very end of Q3 I put in a very strong lap to give me fourth position, which was very satisfying. I am particularly happy for the team because they are working hard at the track and at the factory so it is a pleasure for me to show such a good performance."
Webber has made himself a fixture in the top 10 this season, but he said he had to work at it this time.
"This has been one of the harder circuits for us, in terms of getting the car balance set up correctly," he said. "It normally comes together a little easier than it has done this weekend. But we will defend our position tomorrow, although Q2 showed how tight it now is between the cars."
The push in final qualifying, with race fuel loads, proved problematic for Raikkonen, who slithered around, suffering apparent understeer. But he and Massa reached the top of the charts before the McLarens dialed in.
Second qualifying was seized by Ferraris quickly enough, first Raikkonen then Massa showing his heels. But seconds after Massa lowered his first-session 1:14.9 to 1:14.7, Hamilton set the standard at 1:14.6. Raikkonen's pole time in 2006, the most recent year F1 sallied forth at this venue, was a 1:14.070.
The final slingshot efforts of the session went to Vettel, Kubica and Alonso. They dropped Bourdais, Button, and Germans Rosberg, Heidfeld and Glock.
"Up until the last lap it was not a bad qualifying because we easily made it through Q1, and we were looking pretty strong in Q2 with a good chance of getting into the top 10," Glock said. "But we couldn't improve on the last run when it was really important. I don't know how many times I have just missed out on Q3 by the tiniest of margins, and it has happened again. It is extremely disappointing, but, of course, I will fight as hard as possible in the race, and we'll see what possible."
Going forth under threatening skies, runners sought early quick laps on hard tires before switching to softs for a lap blast. Heavy hitters including Alonso, Trulli and Coulthard languished in the knockout zone as the flag fell on the first session. But the veterans lifted themselves into the next round, as did Vettel, who flew to a fifth-best time. Nakajima, Piquet, Barrichello, Sutil and Fisichella were ousted. Piquet asserted to his team on his cool-down lap that Vettel had blocked him.
Said Sutil, the final German qualifier, "I'm a bit disappointed, to be honest, with this qualifying as I think we could have done a bit better. My second run was looking good, the car felt well-balanced, and I was comfortable, but then I ran a little bit wide on the last corner going into the straight and lost a couple of tenths."
Fisichella, too, thought more should have come of qualifying. "We did three runs today, and on my fastest lap I hit some traffic in the last sector and couldn't record the time I think we could have done round here, so I'm quite disappointed," he said.
McLaren were quickest in practice, this time in the form of Kovalainen. Massa was also quick, while Kubica's BMW Sauber suffered a broken half-shaft and placed last on time charts.