For those wanting to see a dramatic finish to the 2009 Formula One season, qualifying in Singapore delivered the best possible result, with both Red Bulls in the first four, Brawn struggling with handling issues and a couple of wildcards in the mix, just to keep things interesting.
In a shortened final qualifying session Lewis Hamilton took his third pole position in four races, almost by default as Rubens Barrichello went into the wall. Alongside the McLaren was Sebastian Vettel, ahead of the hard-charging Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber. It promises to be an explosive Singapore Grand Prix.
There’s a widely held view that a good car is good everywhere but that’s been turned on its head in a season in which new rules, tighter belts and testing restrictions have ensured nothing is truly optimised. Form is being dictated by circumstance, with track layout determining who’s hot and who’s not. Force India, like greased lightening on the fast tracks of Spa and Monza, have struggled in Singapore. Conversely Williams, with all the pace of a damp lettuce on the high-speed circuits, ride the kerbs better than anyone. The order established in the last few weeks has been overturned once more.
The circuit has got quicker over the weekend as more and more rubber has gone down, but it’s still slippery, as Romain Grosjean found out, disappearing down an exit road on his outlap. Others were more circumspect in Q1, but the Swiss driver would not be the only one to go AWOL during the session.
Jaime Alguersuari was the first to set a time, the benchmark being a 1:50.169. Giancarlo Fisichella’s Ferarri came around next; surprisingly the experienced Italian was a second slower than the Spanish rookie. Sébastien Buemi came next and went a second faster than his team-mate and, in a carbon copy, Kimi Räikkönen followed, and was a second slower than Buemi. It did not look like being a stellar qualifying session for Ferrari.
Up at the front Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were trading fastest sectors, while the order took shape behind them and, with five minutes remaining, the drivers in danger were Adrian Sutil, Jarno Trulli, Nick Heidfeld, Aguersuari and Tonio Liuzzi. But staring over the edge of the abyss were Räikkönen and Fisichella. Räikkönen and Trulli improved and suddenly Rubens Barrichello, winner in Valencia and Monza, was on the cusp. He put in a wobbly-but-quick lap to pull himself clear of danger, and the men out were Sutil, Alguersuari, Fisichella, Grosjean and Liuzzi.
Q2 saw Rosberg, Vettel and Hamilton disappearing into the distance once again, but behind them the order was a mixed bag, lacking the usual clarity of a team-based hierarchy. With the clock running down the five men facing elimination each represented a different team: Robert Kubica for BMW; Räikkönen of Ferrari, Jenson Button of Brawn, Trulli of Toyota and Toro Rosso’s Buemi. Räikkönen was racing on the limit, his car twitching and impossibly close the barriers. It looked fast but it wasn’t fast enough, neither Ferrari would be in the top ten. Kubica, however, put in a nerveless lap and dragged himself into contention. It led to a concerned pitwall at Brawn who suddenly had their cars in tenth and 11th, while the timing screens were awash with green [personal best] and purple [fastest of all] sector times. Rubens Barrichello pulled himself clear, relegating Kazuki Nakajima. Out too were Button, Buemi and Trulli. Meanwhile Nico Rosberg set the fastest time of the entire weekend with a 1:46.197.
The long lap of Marina Bay saw no-one wasting any time at the start of Q3. Once again Hamilton, Vettel and Rosberg set the fastest times. After their first runs all the drivers came in for a quick change onto new super soft rubber, ready for the final, decisive effort. Rosberg was the first of the front-runners onto his flyer. He went purple in the first sector. Vettel came hurtling up behind to beat that time, but Rosberg was going faster still, purple in sector two. Meanwhile Hamilton behind them approached the start-finish line to begin his lap and then… massive anti-climax. Rubens Barrichello, pushing hard, went wide at Turn Five. The Brawn bottomed out and hammered into the wall. The red flag came out, the session was stopped, everyone returned to the garage. With only 26 seconds left on the clock, nobody was going to improve.
Vettel was philosophical after the event; “Yeah, it’s a shame we didn’t get the last run in on new tyres, but it shows how important every lap is…” Rosberg, said much the same while Hamilton was delighted with the outcome, while also confident he had “a couple more tenths to come.” He’ll start on pole with Vettel alongside and Rosberg sharing row two with Webber. Barrichello’s earlier lap earned him fifth position, but a gearbox change after morning practice penalises him five place and he’ll start tenth. Instead row three is filled by Fernando Alonso and Timo Glock. Behind them are the BMW’s of Heidfeld and Kubica, with Heikki Kovalainen promoted to ninth ahead of Barrichello.
With strategy being all-important at a track where overtaking is a forlorn dream, the publication of the respective fuel-loads was awaited with considerable interest – but with Barrichello’s car strewn across Singapore, putting it on the scales took a while to arrange. When the figures finally appeared, at 2:29 in the morning, the tale they told would make McLaren happy. All the front-runners were on the same strategy, with Hamilton marginally heavier than his closest rivals – but street races rarely go completely by the numbers.