Crediting the car with being just right, Ferrari's Felipe Massa on Saturday put down what he called a perfect lap and took pole position for the inaugural Grand Prix of Singapore, to be the first night race in 58 years of Formula One history. The Brazilian lapped the high-dollar candlepower-bathed 3.148-mile Marina Bay street circuit in 1 minute, 44.801 seconds, more than six-tenths of a second quicker than fellow front-row holder Lewis Hamilton of McLaren Mercedes (1:45.465), who barely advanced from the second of three knockout qualifying sessions. Ferrari helpmate Kimi Raikkonen qualified third (1:45.617).
"First of all, the car was just perfect, you know, so nice to drive," Massa said. "Then I managed to do a perfect lap. There is always help when I have a good car and don't make any single mistake in whatever corner you go, so that's always a great achievement.
"When I came to the last corner I said, 'Oh, maybe I take it easy a little bit,' but I couldn't so I did quick anyway, the last corner, and then the feeling is so fantastic. When you can take away the best of the car it is one of the most incredible feelings you can feel as a racing driver. When you achieve what you want is always a great achievement."
Massa, who secured his fifth pole of the season and 14th in his F1 career, called the course difficult to drive but the lighting -- just under 4 million watts worth -- fully adequate.
"Concentration will be 10 times more important than for a normal circuit," he said, "even maybe a little bit more difficult than Monaco."
Massa's pole gives him a season sweep of Formula One's downtown courses, Monaco, Valencia and Singapore. If the inaugural race on the harborside streets of Valencia, Spain, just over a month ago is an indication, the Singapore course will not offer much passing, and a consistent recent criticism of the sport, that it is racing as procession, will prevail. If he holds station in the race, at least one place ahead of Hamilton, Massa can take the FIA World Drivers' Championship point lead from the Englishman. Hamilton holds a one-point lead, 78-77.
Rounding out the top 10 are BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica, McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen, Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel, Toyota's Timo Glock, Nico Rosberg in the first of the Toyota-engined Williamses, BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld and Kazuki Nakajima in the other Williams. The Williams runners qualified together in ninth and 10th but sixth-qualifier Heidfeld incurred a three-spot penalty for hindering Honda's Rubens Barrichello during first qualifying.
Heidfeld was slowing to enter the pits, Barrichello was on a flying lap, and together on the road they discovered why others including Kovalainen have called the pit entrance a problem. Heidfeld said he got out of the Brazilian's way as much as possible but it wasn't enough for Barrichello, who aborted the lap and decided to enter the pits himself. Heidfeld was penalized three grid spots for hindering, and Barrichello was fined 10,000 euros ($14,600) for incorrectly using the pit entrance deceleration zone, that is, he crossed the white line defining the zone.
Jarno Trulli's Toyota is in 11th spot. Next to Trulli will be Jenson Button, making a strong showing for Honda. They are followed by Red Bull duo Mark Webber and David Coulthard, Renault teammates Fernando Alonso and Nelsinho Piquet, Toro Rosso's Sebastien Bourdais and Barrichello, while Force India's Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella fill the grid.
The usually loquacious Hamilton seemed lost for words to describe his difficult qualifying.
"It was a little bit nervewracking, for sure," he said. "But, fortunately, we got through. It wasn't as smooth sailing as some other people, but more or less we've been very competitive all weekend and I think we're in good position."
He was told via radio connection from pit-wall ahead of his final lap that he was a tenth of a second down through each of the circuit's first two timing sectors. He said he was being cautious. Bridgestone's two tire choices, he said, worked about equally, the softer compound just not lasting as long.
Current world driving champion Raikkonen stares at the back of his teammate and at what might be his final chance to rescue his title defense. In fourth position behind Kubica, who has 64 points, the Finn, on 57, trails Hamilton by 21 points. A technical complaint hampered his final practice opportunity.
"We had something to do with the steering wheel," he said. "When I run wide and tried to turn around I couldn't find any gears anymore. But then the car came pretty good. It wasn't too bad."
Raikkonen, who languished in Q2 and needed a 1:44.282 lap to pull himself through to the final session, said the F2008 didn't perform as well on the hard compound as the soft. Tire choice has been critical to result for Ferrari as well as McLaren as the two teams chase the FIA World Constructors' Championship. Ferrari leads 134-129. BMW Sauber has 117 points.
If Hamilton's front-row start marks a providential stroke of good fortune, Alonso's eighth-row place is the reverse. Fastest runner in two of three free practices, including Saturday's final practice before qualifying, Alonso entered qualifying with a solidly good chance to reach the front row and perhaps pole. Instead, the car quit and rolled to a stop three minutes into the second qualifying period, leaving the double world champion Spaniard to hold his head. Renault blamed a fuel supply problem.
"It's a really big disappointment because we had a real chance to do something special today, perhaps not pole position but to at least qualify in the top four," Alonso said. "Our weekend was going really well and we had big hopes for this evening. I know that starting in the middle of the pack will make for a difficult race and I will need a miracle with the strategy to be able to make progress on this street circuit where it looks difficult to overtake."
Vettel continued to be the "It Boy" of the sport. The Italian Grand Prix winner plopped himself among the leaders straight off for the team that is scripted to run second-best to Red Bull Racing. Instead, Vettel is on the fourth row and the next-best effort by Red Bull Technology-generated cars is the seventh row filled by Webber and Coulthard. Vettel's teammate, Bourdais, the driver in the field with the most experience of comparable night racing, is on the next-to-last row.
"I think we achieved the maximum we could do today," Vettel said.
Said Bourdais, "Every time I braked, the car went sideways. It was pulling to the left and alternately locking one of the rear wheels."
Bourdais said about his former Champ Car boss Paul Newman, reports of whose death Friday of lung cancer was leading world news programs Saturday, "On top of all this has come the very sad news that Paul Newman has died. He was a great man and he will be dearly missed, but he has no doubt gone to a better place."
Another standout effort -- as a tale of misfortune -- was Fisichella's final spot. The Italian F1 veteran crashed during Friday practice, leaving the mechanics to labor away at putting him back on track. They did so only to have him crash on his first qualifying lap, at Turn 10 where high curbs have caught out a number of runners. If misjudging the right line over the curbs doesn't throw a driver off line, damage to bargeboards messes with aerodynamic efficiency.
Without the race having been run, F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone said he is pushing to make the Grand Prix of Japan a night race. Asian night races beam into European living rooms in prime race-viewing time. Ecclestone told BBC Radio 5 Live his chief interest is accommodating the European fan.
Bourdais is not alone in the paddock in expressing sadness at the news about Newman. McLaren boss Ron Dennis, who praised Newman's driving and talked about having given the actor a test for a Procar series drive some years ago, issued a condolence statement. "Paul Newman was one of those very few people for whom the term 'megastar' was no exaggeration," the statement read in part.