McLaren Mercedes driver and series sophomore Heikki Kovalainen on Saturday swept to pole position for the British Grand Prix, his first pole in Formula One, "by a mile," or "a half-second in real terms," as his team informed him via radio.
The Finn scorched his way to a 1 minute, 21.049-second lap around the 3.6-mile Silverstone Circuit, bumping first fellow countryman Kimi Raikkonen in Ferrari then Mark Webber for Red Bull. With a 1:21.554, Webber was told by his team he was P1 while Kovalainen hustled to the checkered flag then the Australian settled for claiming Red Bull's first front-row start in the team's fourth season. Raikkonen set a 1:21.706.
Kovalainen, like Webber, has achieved successive career milestones at the circuit that has been home to the British Grand Prix since 1987. Silverstone has been the focal point of the industry as a majority of teams are based near or have shops in the area.
"It's been going really well all weekend," Kovalainen said. "We managed to put some more pace to the car last week (during tire testing), and all week here it's been carrying on from that. And, um, obviously, I've been spending (time) around this Silverstone area for many, many years of my life, and I know a lot of families and friends around here so it's great to make first pole here and tomorrow we try to just carry on."
Webber, too, acknowledged a home aspect. Silverstone, he said, was the first track he drove after he left his native Australia to further his racing career.
"Bit of a surprise, actually," Webber said. "We've been pretty strong most of the weekend but we didn't realize how strong, I suppose, until we got, especially, into Q2. We were surprised. My (1:)19.7 was pretty competitive. Obviously, these guys (Ferrari and McLaren) have a different strategy in Q2 to us, probably with the fuel loads, but in relation to the rest of the guys we're normally competing against we looked to have a nice margin on them. It's a credit to the team. They've worked so hard over the last few weeks, like all the teams have, but Red Bull, we're very close to here, y'know, just down the road. So the same thing for us, it's a bit of a home grand prix for all the Red Bull racing guys. It's a proud moment for them."
Down to business, drivers found changeable weather -- rain that dampened and wind that dried -- affecting every part of every lap.
"It was quite difficult conditions, especially at the beginning of the first session and the middle of the first session there was quite a dark sky and it was possible to get some rain," Kovalainen said. "Then my first run in Q1 I had a bit of traffic and I didn't manage to do a very good lap at the beginning so I had to go out and try to do it before the rain comes just to make sure we're not knocked out of the first part of the qualifying. Then in the second part of the qualifying went much better, without any problems. Now the last part also quite difficult conditions. I think the wind picked up this last part. The first run, I was all over the place but managed to put the second run together much better and I'm very happy about it."
Raikkonen said his Ferrari had shed some of its handling issues from Friday practices and he was happy with the car if not its grid place.
"Comparing to yesterday, it was much better," the world champion said. "We put a lot of effort to try to sort my car out and it seems to work OK. For sure, we're not exactly where we want to be, but it's never been our strongest point, at least for me, the first couple qualifyings. Nobody knows how much fuel everybody is running. For sure, McLaren, especially Heikki, has been very fast this weekend. Tomorrow we will only know how fast we were today."
Kovalainen's teammate Lewis Hamilton, on the same fuel load as Kovalainen, worked hard, at first too hard, to reach fourth spot on the grid. His team warned him not to overdrive after he set two fastest sector times only to put his MP4-23 in the gravel in the third sector. His 1:21.835 only barely edged Nick Heidfeld's 1:21.873. As with last year, Hamilton lost pole to his teammate.
Heidfeld of BMW Sauber reversed his recent woes by outqualifying his teammate, Robert Kubica. Heidfeld starts fifth next to the Renault of Fernando Alonso, last year's pole sitter who was quickest in the morning's final practice that followed a rain shower. Alonso in turn outqualifed his teammate Nelsinho Piquet, who starts seventh.
Next to Piquet is Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel, who showed as high as third on time charts during the three sessions that constitute the qualifying hour. Lining up ninth is points leader Felipe Massa of Ferrari.
Kubica, who suffered mechanical problems that put him in the garage for the final qualifying session, is 10th.
The second 10 line up as Red Bull's David Coulthard, Toyota's Timo Glock, Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais, Toyota's Jarno Trulli, Williams's Kazuki Nakajima, Honda's Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button, Williams's Nico Rosberg, and the Force Indias of Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella. Force India's HQ is essentially across the street from the Silverstone course.
The disappointment pack will be handed round by thoroughly British -- or more to the mark English -- team Williams, whose Rosberg couldn't muster typical speed, and Britons Coulthard and Button, who suffer the ignominy of being outqualified by teammates.
But most chat will center on Hamilton, whose season has fans wondering if his attention has wandered. He has slipped to fourth in driver standings after leading. One need look no further than the McLaren website to see the Englishman is as busy with at least as many nonracing duties as racing ones. A further glance finds photos all over British tabloids showing him escorting a series of supermodels, singers, beauty contest winners and similarly glamourous women. He has been voted Formula One's all-time playboy -- this after only a season and a half in the series -- in a poll by something called Nuts TV. His image suffered further by accepting, then having his father, who acts as his agent, refuse a fitness challenge to compete in a triathlon later this month. The challenge was issued by Button on Thursday during an official F1 interview, where Coulthard offered to hold the money, nearly $20,000 for charity. "This is a man challenge," Coulthard chided Hamilton. "You can't turn down a man challenge." Apparently, Hamilton's father Anthony can.