Hamilton leads McLaren front row in Valencia

But for a little wiggle ... McLaren Mercedes jockey Heikki Kovalainen, well aware of The Questions Being Asked about the likelihood of his keeping his job, used a nearly flawless flying lap Saturday to deliver his best qualifying performance of...

But for a little wiggle ...

McLaren Mercedes jockey Heikki Kovalainen, well aware of The Questions Being Asked about the likelihood of his keeping his job, used a nearly flawless flying lap Saturday to deliver his best qualifying performance of the season, the front row for Sunday's Grand Prix of Europe at Valencia, Spain.

Ah, but his lap wasn't flawless. A shimmy out of the final corner combination added just that little bit to his time. That left flawless to job-secure World Champion Lewis Hamilton, whose efficiency found him bailing on a final flying lap and taking pole position. The result was Hamilton's best qualifying performance -- his first pole -- of the season, too. The effort marks a full turnaround for a team that began the season in shocking, even shameful, manner, well off the pace and struggling, to the point of lying to stewards to gain position.

Hamilton's 1-minute, 39.498-second tour of the 3.3-mile harborside circuit and Kovalainen's 1:39.532 version gave McLaren their first front row of the season. Handy given degree of difficulty in passing at this circuit. Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, badly injured a month ago at the most recent event, in Hungary, and now recuperating at home in Brazil, won last year's race from pole. Hamilton won in Hungary. His pole lap was his first flyer in the third of three qualifying sessions.

"Fantastic achievement from the team in the last race then to come here not really knowing whether we would have the same pace or whether other people would have made a same step forward, but clearly we have a good pace," Hamilton said. "Heikki, especially, did a fantastic job through qualifying. Very close between me and him, and it's great to see us both there. I think both of us, we've been wanting a one-two qualifying experience for a long time. So it's great to be here."

Kovalainen, looking flushed and well worked by the heat of a Spanish summer's day, put his best spin on the slight error. He needn't have. The Finn is driving an MP4-24 lacking improvements made to Hamilton's model. The team figures Hamilton's car, designed to a shorter wheelbase, is two-tenths slower than Kovalainen's. Kovalainen closed that gap to three hundredths. McLaren and Ferrari are the only teams using the power-boost technology called kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that captures and reuses braking energy.

"I could have done it a little bit better, but in qualifying you have to go for it," Kovalainen said. "It was incredibly close. Had I not pushed to the absolute limit, I could have dropped three or four places very easily. So I went for it. Didn't work out this time. Luckily, I didn't lose more than one place, so it's fine. It's absolutley a great place to start for tomorrow."

Kovalainen finished fifth in Hungary.

Hamilton was a model of efficiency in progressing through three qualifying sessions in short order. He said the effort marked a return to former days, when McLaren challenged for titles.

"We haven't seen this for a long time," Hamilton said. "Last year and in 2007, there were times where we only had to do one run in qualifying. This year, we've had to go in all guns blazing and use every minute and every second of the qualifying session."

Fast chap of the day, Brawn GP's Rubens Barrichello, who set a 1 minute, 38-second lap in the second of three qualifying sessions, lines up third. He is followed by Red Bull ace Sebastian Vettel, whose RB5 blew its Renault engine in final practice, closing the course for a 20-minute cleanup and leaving Force India hero Adrian Sutil atop timesheets. Vettel expressed confidence for a good result, saying he "likes this track." His teammate, Mark Webber, called the course "very, very boring."

Holding the third row are Barrichello teammate Jenson Button, still leading the world driving title chase after posting six victories in the first seven races, and Ferrari leader Kimi Raikkonen. Button confessed a slight mistake cost him, but conceded he wasn't front-row material anyway with the McLarens carrying on as they are. "Fifth on the grid is not bad at all," Button said.

The fourth row belongs to Williams F1's Nico Rosberg and home favorite Fernando Alonso, about whose projected move to Italy next season Ferrari are issuing nondenial denials, in a Renault. Red Bull's Ashes-distracted Webber and BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica complete the first 10.

Ninth is Webber's second-worst qualifying of the season; he was on the back row in Bahrain. He sits second to Button in drivers points. "We'll fight like hell as normal," Webber said. A return to the top 10 is a lift for Kubica, whose three previous races were started from the Lower Half.

"The track is good for us," said a Barrichello looking even worse for wear and 80-degree temperatures than Kovalainen. "It's good to be back, competitive."

Brawn GP, nee Honda, raced to a dizzying start after coming into being only three weeks before the season started. They continue to hold the constructors' and drivers' points leads, but Red Bull has done some catching up since Turkey, seventh race of a 17-race season. A tire-warming problem gave Mercedes-powered Brawn GP grip issues in cool races in Britain and Germany, a concern obviated by Spain's heat. Efforts to overcome the problem have team boss Ross Brawn casting half an eye on probabilities for frequently rainy Belgium, next weekend. (The rest of his attention, of course, is on London, where England and Australia are completing the titanic struggle for the remains of a cricket bat known as The Ashes.)

Completing the grid for Sunday's race are Nick Heidfeld for BMW Sauber and Sutil on Row 6, Toyota's Timo Glock and Renault's newcomer Romain Grosjean on Row 7, Ferrari-powered Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi and Mercedes-powered Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella on Row 8, Toyota-powered Williams F1's Kazuki Nakajima and Toyota's Jarno Trulli on Row 9, and Toro Rosso youngster Jaime Alguersuari and Ferrari veteran tester Luca Badoer on Row 10.

Sutil's 12th spot is his second-best showing this season and his fourth appearance in second qualifying. "I'm really happy about the upgrades we've put on the car, the team is doing a great job," Sutil said. "We've made a big step forward in the last couple of months and I'm really enjoying every session now. It's a reasonable goal for us to say we want to score our first points here."

Aspirational Buemi, whose team pointed out neither he nor teammate Alguersuari is old enough to rent cars, said he thought reaching the final qualifying session was possible. "We are making progress," Buemi, 20, said. Teammate Alguersuari, 19, targeted a top-15 finish.

Grosjean's 14th no doubt left a replaced Nelsinho Piquet shouting somewhere "I could have done that well." But the Swiss-born, French-licensed F1 rookie was not bothered. "It's quite a challenge in the way to qualifying," Grosjean said. "I'd like to be a little bit more in front."

Nakajima's FW31 suffered an engine shutdown during first qualifying. The team hadn't discovered the cause by the end of qualifying. "We had a failure on my car which caused the engine to cut out during Q1 so I didn't have a chance to show what we could do," Nakajima said. "It's a shame because I think we were strong enough to have been in the top 10 today."

Trulli, whose reputation was made on qualifying ability, lines up in his worst starting position since Monaco, where he was on the back row. He started on the back row in the season's opening race in Australia, too. This latest disappointment indicates how far Toyota have stumbled into the wilderness after making a strong start -- Trulli's Australian grid spot notwithstanding.

Badoer's tail-end effort has tagged him Capitano Lento (Captain Slow) but he, too, is unruffled. "It's all a test to me," Badoer told BBC Radio.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Giancarlo Fisichella , Jarno Trulli , Jenson Button , Luca Badoer , Rubens Barrichello , Mark Webber , Nick Heidfeld , Kimi Raikkonen , Fernando Alonso , Ross Brawn , Lewis Hamilton , Felipe Massa , Nico Rosberg , Heikki Kovalainen , Robert Kubica , Timo Glock , Sebastian Vettel , Kazuki Nakajima , Adrian Sutil , Jaime Alguersuari
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , Sauber , McLaren , Force India , Toro Rosso , Williams , Brawn GP