Jack Evans, F1 Correspondent
Lewis Hamilton set fastest lap at 1m 22.285s in the dying seconds of today’s FIA Formula One qualifying session in Spain, notching up McLaren’s 150th pole position and, to Lewis, “one of the best ones I’ve ever had.”
But the surprise of the session was Pastor Maldonado, who drove his Williams to second place on the final lap.
"We improved our worst thing, which was qualifying pace, so I am happy for the team, for my country and for myself,” the Venezuelan said at his first top-three press conference.
The Catalan crowd’s hero, Fernando Alonso sat on the Spanish Grand Prix pole for only a few seconds, and will start third on the grid. The result may signal the beginning of a turnaround for struggling Scuderia Ferrari.
“For us it was impossible to even dream about being in the top three in the four races,” he said. “So it’s definitely a big step forward.”
Shortly after crossing the start/finish line, Hamilton pulled his McLaren to a stop off track.
“I was told to stop,” he told reporters. “I don’t really have any idea why.”
No penalty will be incurred, but because the cars are now in parc ferme and may not be touched overnight, it will remain to be seen if the car is seriously afflicted.
Romain Grosjean again outqualified his Lotus teammate Kimi Raikkonen, but only by six hundredths of a second at what was supposed to be the team’s “perfect track.” Just behind them is the regularly impressive Sergio Perez in the Sauber.
Nico Rosberg, in seventh, was the last driver in Q3 to actually set a flying lap—Sebastian Vettel drove around the track once to post a time, and then returned to the pits to save a set of tires that could be crucial in Sunday’s race.
This decision can likely be attributed to the “two-step gap” in rubber compounds brought by Pirelli to the Spanish GP. Only soft and hard tires will be available, and there is a roughly 2.5 second gap between the two, making any extra options during the race very valuable, perhaps more so than a higher spot on the grid. While he starts on pole, Hamilton did put two hard laps on his set of softs. That decision may come back to haunt during the race.
Kamui Kobayashi and Michael Schumacher also elected to save tires instead of running.
“I did not complete a timed lap, and now I still have the choice of what tires to start on tomorrow,” Schumacher said. “Equally, I thought it was better to start from ninth on the grid than eighth, and be on the clean side.”
He is directly still ahead of Jenson Button and Mark Webber, though. They were knocked out of Q2 by a series of fast laps at the end of the session brought on by the track-cooling shade of some spare cloud cover.
“We were quick, but the track kept getting faster and we got caught out,” Webber said. “I was told not to go out again, but the way that the track improved was a surprise to all of us.”
The surface temperature may also have an effect tomorrow in conjunction with tire strategy, as lap times drop significantly with cooler weather.
Paul Di Resta leads both Force India cars in thirteenth and fourteenth, Jean-Eric Vergne the next two Toro Rossos.
Felipe Massa’s woes continued, as he now lies seventeenth, fourteen places below his teammate Alonso. It’s yet another disappointing run for the “other” Ferrari driver.
Bruno Senna was fastest of those eliminated in Q1, and celebrated by spinning off into a gravel trap on his next lap around.
Both Lotuses follow, then both Marussias, then Pedro De La Rosa’s HRT; the other, of Narain Karthikeyan did not lap within 107% of the leader by over two seconds. He will race tomorrow at the steward’s discretion.
Looking forward to the race, Lewis Hamilton has a chance to be the eleventh winner from pole in twelve starts. But with an improved Ferrari, two hunting Lotuses, and Sebastian Vettel on fresh tires behind him, a quick, early lead and perfect pit strategy will be required.
Pastor Maldonado is unlikely to challenge from his first front-row start, but has the potential to further separate his team from Force India in the points standings with a top-ten finish.
Sergio Perez as well is in good position, and his teammate has tires to choose from. Behind them, the pace of the two Mercedes cars is a bit uncertain. If they can get a good run in without any bad luck it should be more defined.
Jenson Button is well-known for his skillful manipulation of tires; his race should be interesting to watch, as will Red Bull’s tactics in moving Webber up through the field.