Hannah Taylor, F1 correspondent
For the first time in the history of the FIA Formula One World Championship since Grands Prix have taken place at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia, the McLaren Mercedes team have secured their maiden Malaysian pole position thanks to Lewis Hamilton, who took the top spot following the 2012 qualifying session this morning.
Hamilton’s time proved unbeatable as he topped the timesheets with a time of 1:36.219, which no other driver in the field could compete with in the end.
Hamilton expressed his feelings after qualifying as he picked up his 21st pole and historical moment for the team.
“It’s great for the team to have another one-two, too: that’s a huge achievement from everybody, but we just need to make sure we keep pushing because the guys behind us won’t give up. Tomorrow, there’s a long haul down to Turn one, but I’ll be making sure to get a good launch and stay ahead cleanly,” commented Hamilton.
While Hamilton crossed the line as the flag fell to mark the end of the qualifying shootout, his team mate Jenson Button helped the team to lock out the front row of the grid for the second consecutive time so far this season.
The Englishmen stole the show in the dying seconds of Q3, but there was disappointment for Red Bull drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, as they completed qualifying slightly off the pace of their Championship rivals, and opening the way for Mercedes’ driver Michael Schumacher to pinch third place in the line-up for tomorrow’s race.
Webber finished the session by securing himself a reasonable slot, fourth place on the grid where he will accompany Schumacher on the second row. However, double and reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel was knocked off his perch from his usual pole position and had to settle for sixth-fastest in the end.
On the other hand, as a result of Lotus-Renault’s Kimi Raikkonen facing a five-place grid penalty following a gearbox change, Vettel will now be promoted into fifth place for the start of the race.
Before the qualifying proceedings got the green light the focus was very much on the weather. Initially, there had been a spell of rain but in the lead up to the start of Q1 the conditions changed in favour of dry and hot conditions with the sun beaming down on the circuit.
Surprisingly, with the main attraction usually known for being at the front of the field, the spectators were forced to wait in anticipation of an appearance from the top Championship rivals. It was the midfield runners that took centre stage first, featuring the likes of Force India driver Paul Di Resta and his team mate Nico Hulkenberg.
Despite Di Resta veering off the track three times during the practice sessions, the Scotsman managed to keep it together during Q1 and was the first man of the field to top the timesheets. Inevitably, before the usual front runners muscled in on the action, Di Resta found himself in first place with a lap of 1:38.927secs.
It appeared that the leading drivers did not want Di Resta’s hold at the front to last, as the majority of the field and popular pace setters emerged from the pits. Hamilton, who had impressed during practice and been streets ahead of the rest soon followed Raikkonen who snatched first place from Di Resta in the beginning. Nonetheless, Hamilton then made his mark on the action and crossed the line to take first place for starters. The 2008 World Champion jumped to the top of the leader board with a time of 1:37.904secs.
As the battle at the front of the field began to unfold, there was plenty to shout about in the midfield as well. Schumacher’s German team mate and fellow countryman, Nico Hulkenberg completed his first run to unsettle the front runners and creep up the line up at the time. After a solid and worthwhile attempt Rosberg found himself in first place, which caused the positions at the time to jumble up slightly. Unfortunately though Rosberg was not able to sustain this hold at the top of the field as his team mate Schumacher was making his way round the circuit and so too was Webber. Between them it was looking like Rosberg’s chances of staying close to the front would soon see him fall down the line up. Of the two drivers on their way to shake up the positions, Webber was sadly on course for losing the battle when he was running nine tenths of a second off the pace. Meanwhile, an exciting in team battle was about to commence between Schumacher and Rosberg. Schumacher appeared to be running well during his first hot lap when he was a tenth and a half faster than Rosberg. With Schumacher going round the final corners of his lap the tension appeared to be building and the seven time World Champion soon crossed the line to take first place with a lap of 1:37.538secs.
When the first part of the qualifying session was edging closer to half distance, Schumacher was the leader of the pack ahead of team mate Rosberg, who was closely followed by Button. Hamilton was running in fourth place at this stage and Raikkonen had slipped down to fifth position. Meanwhile, the first of the Ferraris to take to the track in the form of Fernando Alonso was initially running in sixth place as Williams’ driver Pastor Maldonado was on his tail. Lotus-Renault’s Romain Grosjean may have been slightly out of the loop compared to his team mate, but the Frenchman’s first effort after a shuffle in the line-up saw him in eighth place after 10 minutes had past in the session. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi appeared to keep out of the limelight during Q1 and this seemed to show in relation to his track position, where the Japanese driver found himself in ninth place at this point. While the Force India drivers got off to a good start in Q1, sadly both drivers fell down the field as a result of the front runners finding their feet. This meant that mid-way through the first test of qualifying, Hulkenberg may have been ahead of Di Resta and running in 10th place, but the German along with his team mate had to suffer the consequences of the pace setters maintaining the top spots at the time. Di Resta had slipped down to 12th place then and Webber was stuck in the middle between the pair. As the majority of the field appeared to be in solid track positions at this stage, the second Sauber driver, Sergio Perez seemed to be the last to be in this situation when the Mexican was running in 13th position and the places following on from this were ever changing.
Where the back of the field was concerned and in particular with the attention on the drop zone, the second Ferrari in the form of Felipe Massa found himself in unfamiliar territory. The Brazilian driver had surprisingly fallen rapidly down the field to 17th place at the time. After appearing in this vulnerable position Massa soon retreated to the pits with eight minutes remaining on the clock. However, Massa was not the only usual front runner that had a lot of work ahead of them, when Webber was also under pressure and running in 11th place at one stage.
As the 24 drivers in the field were literally against the clock and Q1 was ticking down, some of the drivers took to the pits momentarily and others still wanted to get a few more laps under their belt. Towards the front of the field was inevitably where the focus was, and Vettel was making his way round the track as Button sped to second place with a lap of 1:37.575secs. Although this was not good enough to take first place from Schumacher, the 2009 World Champion still put in a solid lap in any case. On the other hand, Button’s team mate, Hamilton could not share the same success at this point as he completed a lap. He ran wide during a second flying lap attempt and ended up in fourth place at the time.
With the clock against the field as a whole in terms of setting laps, and for the drivers running in the drop out zone it was vital for the latter to up their game. The seven drivers that found themselves in danger of bowing out of Q1 were Massa, Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen, Marussia’s Timo Glock and Charles Pic, and the Hispania Racing pair of Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan.
Of those seven drivers who attempted to get through to Q2, Massa was the first to make an appearance and get back on track. Before he completed another flying lap, Massa was running in 18th place. Fortunately, he found enough pace in the prancing horse to get up to 11th place at the time.
Sadly for Toro Rosso’s Formula One rookie Jean-Eric Vergne, he did not have the same fortune as the Frenchman tried to dig himself out of the sticky situation. He locked up his wheels going into Turn One, and Williams’ driver Bruno Senna also shared the same fate at this part of the circuit.
Inevitably, the clock finally ticked down to mark the end of Q1 and the 20 minute session. While it was disappointing for some drivers to fall first, unfortunately there are always casualties at this stage. Those that failed to make the grade include, Vergne, who will start from 18th place on the grid. Kovalainen finished the session alongside Vergne in 19th position, but faces a five-place grid penalty for overtaking during the safety car period during the first race in Australia. With this penalty in mind, Kovalainen will start from 24th place, which promotes Petrov into 19th position, Glock will begin the race from 20th place ahead of Pic, De la Rosa comes next and will line up in 22nd place in front of Karthikeyan and Kovalainen.
While seven of the drivers were out of the picture, this made way for Q2 to get the go ahead which would see another seven drivers out of the equation. Midfield runner Perez was the first to start up his engine and make his mark on Q2. However, the rest of the field soon followed suit and jumped on the band wagon to accompany him. The remaining drivers in the race attempting to get through to the all-important top 10 shootout, were all on their out laps, with the exception of Grosjean who was yet to emerge from the pits before he pounced on his midfield rivals.
Following Senna’s misfortune at Turn one during Q1, the Brazilian driver’s string of bad luck continued into Q2. Initially, he let the faster runners pass him but then into his lap he ended up being stuck behind them.
The mishaps concerning the midfield runners soon spread through the field and Maldonado was the next target. The Venezuelan driver ran wide at Turn 10 and went for a gravel run temporarily. Sadly, this caused him to later end up in the drop zone in 15th position.
Meanwhile, where the front runners were concerned, Raikkonen appeared to having things under control on first place ahead of Button. Hamilton was running in third place at this stage with Vettel on his tail in fourth position. Schumacher was a little down the running order in fifth place but keeping Kobayashi at bay. Alonso appeared to still be off the pace in seventh position, as Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo was running well in eighth place. Massa and Perez were the pair battling in ninth and 10th place respectively, as they fought to keep themselves out of the drop out zone.
Nevertheless, it was a little late for those that were not running in a top 10 position. Seven drivers had already found themselves in this vulnerable situation and were attempting to get out of it. Di Resta was the first of them and was running in 11th place ahead of Webber. Rosberg was behind Webber in 13th place and had his fellow countryman bearing down on him. Maldonado, Senna and Grosjean were the final three potentially out at the end of Q2. Fortunately, time was still on these drivers’ hands for them to get a few more laps in, and go all out to get through to the third and final shootout.
Webber was the first man on a mission as he appeared on a charge in his Red Bull. The Australian impressed with this first attempt as he jumped from 12th position up to fourth place. Rosberg was then next in line to muscle in on the top 10 action, and potentially make it through to Q3. He was running in 13th place initially, and after putting another lap in he went up to sixth position.
As the action on the track was heating up like the weather, there were developments off the track as well. Maldonado, who went for his detour earlier in qualifying, was back in the garage and his mechanics were hard at work getting his car back on track.
When there were less than six minutes remaining on the clock of Q2, Grosjean, Vettel, Webber and Massa were among the few runner on the track, as some of the field accompanied Maldonado and temporarily retreated to their garages.
Grosjean was the first man to come to the forefront of the action, as he had a slight wobble at Turn one and lost time during his flying lap. Fortunately, the Frenchman did not lose out too much and made it to fourth place at the time.
During the final three minutes of the action in Q2, Massa was next in the limelight as he slotted into ninth place at one stage. This meant that he was then ahead of his Spanish team mate Alonso, who was still just out of the top 10 in 11th position. However, Alonso soon put his previous Championship winning performance into action, when he climbed up the ladder to sixth place momentarily.
With less than two minutes on the clock of Q2 left to run, Raikkonen was the leading man ahead of Button, Hamilton, Grosjean, Webber, Alonso, Vettel, Rosberg, Schumacher and Kobayashi. As this line up stood these 10 drivers were potentially going through to Q3, but the time had not yet been called on Q2 and there was more action still to come.
Maldonado was the first man on the move as he got himself into ninth place initially. This meant that the drop zone from 11th place read as follows: Schumacher, Massa, Senna, Di Resta, Ricciardo, Hulkenberg and Kobayashi.
As the flag fell and some drivers were finishing up their final laps, Schumacher and Rosberg went head to head in a sudden but exciting in team battle. As a result of their surprising competition in the final stages of Q2, Rosberg was the one that had the upper hand, as he ended up in third place and Schumacher crossed the line to go alongside him in fourth position. Whilst it was important and gripping action to see the drivers battle closely, the positions are most vital when qualifying gets to the Q3 stage and the important thing is to get through to that stage.
Unfortunately, seven drivers were not quite so lucky today and did not have the opportunity to take part in the final stage. From 11th place where Maldonado will line up on the grid, he will be accompanied by Massa who missed out on the top 10 and was pipped by team mate Alonso, Senna will start from 13th position ahead of Di Resta. Ricciardo is next in the line-up and will start on the grid in a Force India sandwich, as Hulkenberg will be the other side of him as the race gets underway. Kobayashi was the seventh and final driver to miss out on the top 10 shootout and he will begin from 17th place on the grid.
When the time finally came for Q3 to get underway, there was a lot at stake as Button was aiming for pole position for the first time in 50 races. What’s more the McLaren Mercedes team itself had never achieved first place in qualifying ahead of a Malaysian Grand Prix until today.
Although the most anticipated moment of qualifying had arrived and was in full swing, the clock was nearly ticking with eight of the 10 minute session remaining before any drivers had taken to the track.
Raikkonen was the first of the front runners who appeared keen to set the initial pace in Q3. However, the “Iceman” had a slight wobble at Turn five and seemed to suffer a lack of grip with his tyres. Nevertheless, Raikkonen took himself to first place temporarily, but soon found himself under pressure from Hamilton. The leader appeared to be one the verge of losing the position, as Hamilton was on a hot lap, judging by his times in the first two sectors which knocked Raikkonen’s out of the window. On the other hand, Hamilton’s team mate pipped him to the post, as Button took first place to start with and he had completed his lap sooner than Hamilton.
Despite locking up his wheels during his hot lap, Hamilton inevitably went on to take first place at the time. Hamilton crossed the line with a lap of 1:36.219secs, which meant that Button was knocked down to second place. Raikkonen was next in the line-up in third position due to the shakeup in positions, and he was alongside Webber at this stage. Grosjean and Vettel were still running close by as well and had got into fifth and sixth place respectively.
As the crucial moment was approaching and there was less and less time for the drivers to alter their positions, the likes of Rosberg, Schumacher, and Perez were all out on the track with just four minutes remaining of Q3.
Of those still battling it out on the track to get ahead of their rivals and team mates, Rosberg appeared to be the first driver to experience some issues. It seemed that he had a lack of grip with his tyres, which was soon indicated by his loss of time during his lap. However, Rosberg managed to get things back on track as he scrapped again with team mate Schumacher. Initially, Schumacher was the weaker of the two drivers and he was running two tenths of a second off the pace. Suddenly, Schumacher came to life again as he put his DRS to use and put everything into the lap. Fortunately, this last attempt appeared to pay off as the former Ferrari driver got into second place.
Where the midfield runners were concerned, Perez was also a man on a mission and he got himself into ninth place at the time.
When the final seconds were ticking down on the clock, the top Championship contenders took the opportunity to battle it out for pole position. The likes of Hamilton, Button and Webber were still out on the track and finishing off their laps. To begin with Vettel could only do enough for third place but soon slipped to sixth position where he will start. Raikkonen was also the same and dropped down the grid due to last minute shake ups. He was running in fourth place at first and soon slipped down to fifth position. This was due to Hamilton’s hold on the top spot, Button in second place, Schumacher in third position and Webber nipping ahead to snatch fourth place. Before taking into consideration Raikkonen’s five-place grid penalty, from Vettel in sixth place, Grosjean came next to finish qualifying in seventh position ahead of Rosberg. This meant that Alonso completed Q3 ninth place and Perez took 10th position.
On the other hand, as Raikkonen slipped down the pack to 10th place, this meant that Vettel moved into fifth place, with the rest of the top 10 lining up on tomorrow’s grid as follows: Grosjean will start from sixth position ahead of Rosberg, Alonso, Perez and Raikkonen will have to climb his way back up the field from 10th place.
Now that the second qualifying session is under the drivers and team’s belts, it gives them the opportunity to really start to settle into the new season and see how the 2012 cars are performing. For McLaren Mercedes in particular the qualifying result is a historical moment for the Woking, UK based team, as they have managed to pip their rivals at last in Kuala Lumpur and picked up their first ever pole position at the circuit. However, as a result of achieving such a goal it is likely to have ruffled a few feathers where their closest rivals are concerned. It remains to be seen until the race proceedings get underway tomorrow as to how the situation will play out. Nevertheless, it is likely that with the expected heat famous for affecting the race conditions for the drivers physically, and the added tension of rivalry between the top and midfield teams that the 14th Malaysian Grand Prix is on course to be an exciting one.