Lewis Hamilton put himself in the perfect position to try to become this season’s fifth winner in five races with a storming run to pole position in Barcelona, ahead of surprise package Pastor Maldonado of Williams and third-placed Fernando Alonso.
In a fast and furious exchange of provisional pole times at the end of Q3, Alonso jumped to the top of the timesheet as the clock ran out on the session, only for Maldonado to usurp him moments later. The Williams driver had looked quick in the final practice session in the morning, where finished second to Sebastian Vettel, and the Venezuelan confirmed the improved pace of the Williams by lapping in 1:22.285.
Hamilton, though, was still out on track and as he powered across the line, he slotted into P1, half a second quicker than the Williams man. However, there was drama at the end of the McLaren driver’s run as his race engineers advised to immediately pull over and stop his car, a stoppage Hamilton was later cagey about. “I stopped on the track. I was told to stop. I don’t really have any idea why,” he said. “But the car was feeling great today. It's a great day for the team, I think. It was a fantastic qualifying session for me. I think it’s one of the best ones I’ve ever had.”
The race stewards later launched an investigation into the stoppage to determine whether Hamilton’s McLaren had been run underweight due to a lack of fuel, a transgression which if proved could rob him of the front-of-grid spot.
Maldonado, meanwhile, hailed the progress Williams has made since the start of the season. “I think we’ve been working so hard from the beginning of the year trying to understand these tyres and to develop our car around the tyres and I think we actually did a really good step forward for this race,” he said. “There is a great atmosphere in the factory, a great atmosphere here in the team, the car looks pretty consistent, especially on race pace, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
“It’s a great feeling to be here, it’s my first time in the top three, so I’m really happy,” he added. “Hopefully we will continue like that and I would like to say thanks to the whole team.”
Alonso, however, admitted that while his third place on the grid was a sign of improvement, the place would be tough to hold in a race in which many quicker rivals will line up just behind him. “We did a step forward but I still doubt how much we did, because I think maybe P3 is a little bit over-performing what we can do at the moment,” he said. “But I’m extremely happy with the lap; it was perfect. I don’t think there is much more to come.
“I think it will be an extremely tough race tomorrow to take care of the tyres again. Degradation, DRS, KERS to overtake. Pit stop strategy, we will see probably a lot of pit stops for everybody. The more pit stops you have, the more risk you have to have a problem in the pits. There are a lot of factors tomorrow that we need to take account. It will be a difficult race. A podium, I think, will be a good result for us and happy.”
Alonso will line up just ahead of Lotus’ Romain Grosjean. Kimi Raikkonen will start fifth, the Finn finishing less than four hundredths of a second behind his French team-mate. Sergio Pérez will start from sixth, ahead of Nico Rosberg. The defending world champion, Sebastian Vettel, will start eighth and though the Red Bull Racing driver admitted he simply did not have the speed to compete for pole position, he was more confident for the race after choosing to abandon his Q3 to retain choice of starting tyre.
“We decided to abort the final lap and come in so that we would have a free choice of tyres tomorrow,” said Vettel. “If I would have finished the lap we would have to start on the soft tyres. It was close between Nico and myself – he was the only one I was really battling with in Q3 unfortunately, the rest seemed to be too far away. We didn’t have the speed in the car. I felt pretty happy all the way to qualifying but straight from Q1 I was struggling to find the dame balance I had before.
“In Q2 – the first run was crucial I managed to pull one out that was strong enough to make it to Q3, so we had to go again and we had burned our last set of tyres already in Q2. Therefore, it was clear we didn't have a shot in Q3. But, all in all you have to respect the fact that we simply weren’t quick enough.
“I’m quite confident for the race, though,” he said. “I think we’ve always had a good race car, so looking forward to tomorrow. We have a couple of new sets, which did prove successful for some people previously this year, so hopefully it will be our turn tomorrow.”
Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber failed to make the Q3 cut for the first time since China last year and will start 12th, though with an extra set of tyres. After his exit he admitted the team had erred in their predictions for how the second qualifying segment would work out. “We have all the data from last year and thought the track would improve by two or three tenths maximum through Q2,” he said. “Today it was eight-tenths through Q2.
“We could have run again, we could have had a bit less fuel in the car, but ultimately it’s what we did,” he added. “It should have been enough but the track got too quick and a lot of other people got quicker – so we underestimated and got caught with our pants down.”
McLaren’s Jenson Button too had a difficult afternoon. The McLaren driver had complained in the morning of poor rear grip and troublesome understeer and, after he too failed to make the Q3 cut, he admitted that he had found no solution between FP3 and qualifying. “To be out in Q2, not by a mistake but by not being quick enough is really surprising. It is going to be a tough afternoon tomorrow,” he said. “I didn't get anywhere near the balance I had yesterday in practice. I had a very loose rear end for most of qualifying and then we added more front wing at the end because we had some understeer in the high speed, we did that and that added to my problems.
“I'm out in Q2, and it doesn't really help because we don't have any new tyres left. It is very close around me, not many people have new tyres, but Webber does.”