He always said he loved the wet. Saturday, Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel backed it up by becoming the youngest driver -- 21 years, 73 days -- to take pole position for a Formula One race. As if on a drive in the park -- if the park is ...
He always said he loved the wet. Saturday, Scuderia Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel backed it up by becoming the youngest driver -- 21 years, 73 days -- to take pole position for a Formula One race. As if on a drive in the park -- if the park is Waterworld -- Vettel bagged pole for Sunday's Grand Prix of Italy with a splashing good time at Monza.
With parts of 3.599-mile Autodromo Nazionale Monza looking like Lake Como South, everybody's favorite B team, the Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso, outplaced the national favorites, Scuderia Ferrari, by putting cars in the first two rows of the grid. Vettel teammate Sebastien Bourdais was poised for third until Red Bull family A team member Mark Webber bumped him to what will be a well-washed side of the second row. Webber, who had looked to be in trouble for advancing from the first session, scored his second-best grid position of the season to a front-row spot in Britain.
McLaren Mercedes driver Heikki Kovalainen took the other front-row spot as three of the sport's current four top drivers, points leader Lewis Hamilton, world champion Kimi Raikkonen, and BMW Sauber leader Robert Kubica, failed to advance into the final of three qualifying sessions. The fourth of that leading bunch, points runner-up Felipe Massa of Ferrari, qualified sixth next to Williams's Nico Rosberg on the third row. Jarno Trulli of Toyota and Fernando Alonso of Renault took the fourth row, with Toyota's Timo Glock and BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld on the fifth.
"Unbelievable, incredible," Vettel said. "I mean I was joking with my engineers, we were saying 'OK, if it is wet, then we have to go for pole position.' Unbelievable. I mean, the conditions were so difficult today. A lot of water. You never knew how much water to expect. The most difficult part, I think, was the Ascari chicane. There was so much water. Sometimes you were lucky not to lose the car because of the aquaplaning. But what can I say? I never dreamt of being on pole. Unbelievable. This is our home grand prix, I mean, there are two Italian teams. The bigger one, Scuderia Ferrari, but I think now the people know also the smaller one, Scuderia Toro Rosso, so it's unbelievable."
As the final, 10-minute session ticked to a close, Toro Rosso team members were shown in prayerful pose hoping their man could hold the spot. When he did, prayerful gave way to joyful and they celebrated with appropriate jumping and dancing the high point to date of the third-year team's existence.
Vettel, who takes the youngest pole-sitter designation from Alonso, said a soggy morning practice -- in which Toyota's Glock was the pacesetter -- helped produce a well-balanced car that let him become comfortable and made him happy. "When you feel confident in these conditions, I think, it's a huge advantage," he said. "So I think that is the key. If you don't know how your car is reacting, obviously, you're not even trying. "
Vettel, who used the dry moments -- a relative term -- to go quick then waited it out as rain worsened, was quickest in the second session, too. He credited his peers for their well-mannered efforts on a crowded track, especially in the first qualifying session.
Kovalainen, quickest in the first session, said he expects a competitve race Sunday with a car working well in any condition. "It was very close with Sebastian," Kovalainen said. "I just missed the beginning of the session. My first lap wasn't quite as good. And then it started to rain a little bit toward the end of the session."
Webber congratulated junior partner Vettel, scheduled to become his teammate at Red Bull next season. "It was difficult to get the lap," Webber said. "At the start of Q3 I had a little bit too much spray to pick my braking points in the first two chicanes; stuffed the second one up, and the guys were saying 'It's going to rain heavier, it's going to rain heavier,' so I thought, 'Oh, I haven't done a great job here in Q3,' but I managed. My last lap actually was my best, which was a bit tricky. I'm pretty happy with how it went today.
"I wanted to get both the chicanes as best you can, and then Ascari was the trickiest part in the last part of the session there because it was just two small railway lines to make sure you got the right line. It was amazing how the water was moving around a little bit for the last left, and we saw a lot of guys made mistakes there and I did my previous lap as well. That was the area I was really focusing on to get right. I knew if I drilled that then the lap time would be better for me and it turned out to be the case."
The unqualified qualifying success for Toro Rosso marked the next step in the junior team outshining the senior effort. Toro Rosso have improved race on race with Vettel leading the way all season. Vettel and Bourdais put their STR3s in the top 10 of the grid for a third successive race. Bourdais only just missed a podium place in Belgium last week when rain rearranged the running order in the final laps. Bourdais was passed by Heidfeld, who had pressed his BMW Sauber team to change his tires to full wets. The ploy worked; Heidfeld took third then moved to second when apparent winner Hamilton was penalized for not keeping his car on track.
The second half of the Monza grid includes a few noted veteran wet-weather drivers who might have seen rain as opportunity, especially Honda runners Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. But a seeming seasonlong curse on the Japanese factory team continues and, surprise, surprise, the car was a pig, or so Button indicated ("It had no balance, and I couldn't find any grip"). Barrichello doesn't appear before the eighth row; Button is on the final row. The lineup, 11 through 20, is: Kubica next to Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella, Red Bull's David Coulthard next to Raikkonen, Hamilton next to Barrichello, Renault's Nelsinho Piquet next to Williams's Kazuki Nakajima, Button next to Force India's Adrian Sutil.
In his second season of F1, Hamilton, touted by compatriots as the best wet-weather driver in the series, had never missed a final quali session. His demise was a decision to send him out on intermediate tires instead of full wets in the opening minutes of the second session. The driest conditions presented themselves in those few minutes but inters were not the right choice, and Hamilton lost the opportunity for a lap that might have let him advance.
Although Raikkonen did not endure team-decision dramas, he did nearly lose the whole show at the Variante Ascari. Named for Italy's and the FIA's second F1 World Drivers' Champion, Alberto Ascari, on a day when the ghosts who are said to haunt this course, drivers whose mistakes were rewarded with death, might well have been saying, "See? It ain't that easy," the Ascari chicane bagged Hamilton, Raikkonen, Kubica, Barrichello, even Bourdais on his final lap.
Fisichella gave first-year team Force India its best start this season. "Of course, I'm really pleased to be able to give the team its first entry into Q2 this year and particularly here at Monza," the Italian said. "Conditions in the first session were bad at the start and it was difficult to find some grip, but they improved at the end and that was when I was able to find some space and push. We went out as soon as we could in the second session as the rain was getting heavier and we really did the optimum; we weren't too far from Q3 with the quickest lap. Unfortunately, then the rain just got worse and it was going to be impossible to improve. I'm really looking forward to the race, and with the predicted rain, I think it will be very exciting. I'm going to try hard here -- I scored my first win in similar conditions in Brazil with this team [in 2003 when the team was Jordan F1 and the victory was initially given to Raikkonen before scorers correctly accounted for cars, laps and rules in a crash-filled, red-flagged affair], and although that's going to be difficult here, we can at least try for points."
Rain is forecast for the race on the fastest course the series visits, the final race of the season in Europe.