Fernando Alonso claimed his 22nd career pole position in a rain-disrupted qualifying session for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim.
After an uneventful first segment, during which the only excitement was Michael Schumacher’s need to put in a last-gasp flyer to scrape through to Q2 at the expense of Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne, the second session was enlivened by torrential rain.
The downpour began just as the cars lined up at the pit lane exit. As the rain got worse it was all about who would be able to post a quick time on intermediate tyres before the conditions became too difficult.
In the end it was too much for Nico Rosberg, who was unable to get in a decent time and the Mercedes qualified 17th. Ahead of him were Bruno Senna, Romain Grosjean, Felipe Massa, Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo, who missed out on Q3 by just six hundredths of a second.
While Rosberg was unlucky, team-mate Schumacher sailed through to Q3 after his early session scare and the driver known as ‘Regenmeister’ would profit again in a wet Q3.
As the top 10 shoot-out began rain was being forecast for the final part of the 10-minute session but a second downpour failed to materialise and it was Alonso who made the most of it.
Provisional pole was initially swapped with Sebastian Vettel and then Mark Webber but in the final runs, Alonso pitted for a fresh set of wet tyres and as the Red Bull drivers battled to find grip and pace, Alonso rattled off two furiously fast laps to eclipse both.
Vettel attempted to respond but despite setting the fastest time in the first sector and a personal best in sector two, he failed to find more pace in sector three and could only jump Webber to take second and a front-row berth.
Afterwards Alonso admitted the decision to pit for fresh extreme wet tyres was the key to landing his first German GP pole position.
“Everything went well for us,” he said. “Going into turn six it was not easy for anybody – there was a lot of aquaplaning and we are at 280-290km/h. We got caught a little bit in those aquaplaning moments but the rest of the lap was clean.
“I also think we made a good strategy call, doing a pit stop in Q3 and then having fresh tyres in the last minute when the track was in better condition. I think that helped us a lot to improve the lap time.”
For Vettel the pit stop had also been crucial, as he believes his RB8 had the pace for pole but that Alonso’s tyres made the four tenths of a second difference that pushed the German to the back of row one.
“I think we had the pace today to put the car on pole, I think the lap time was possible,” he said. “We need to look at what Fernando did in the end with the strategy – maybe that was a better way to do it.
“But overall I think that in these conditions it’s always a bit of a lottery as well,” he added. “In aquaplaning conditions you can lose the car without making any mistakes. But fortunately we didn’t lose it, we are on the first row, and I’m starting on the inside. So we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
Webber’s third place in the session will translate to an eighth-place start, after the team found a problem with his gearbox overnight and were forced to change the unit, thus incurring an automatic five-place grid penalty.
Webber, though, is optimistic of his chances in the race and said his qualifying session had been a good one.
“I’m very happy to be quite a long way up,” he said. “We could have maybe done something when Fernando stopped but it’s ifs and buts. They don’t count. We’re third. Eighth now with the penalty for the gearbox, but looking to come forward tomorrow.”
Asked if he feels he has the car to do that, the Australian was emphatic.
“Of course; we’ll aim to go forward, for sure,” he said. “We've shown that the car is strong in all conditions and we’re going to look to come through [the field]. But there are many quick cars out there. It’s never ideal to put ourselves on the back foot with some penalties here and there but we’ll keep boxing and I’m looking forward to the grand prix tomorrow.”
With Webber third on track, it was Schumacher who got closest to the top three, though he was a second down on Webber’s time. However, thanks to Webber’s penalty he will line up at the front of row two tomorrow.
Behind the Mercedes driver, Nico Hulkenberg took a season-best fifth place, with Pastor Maldonado again looking quick in sixth. The top ten was rounded out by Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Paul Di Resta and Kimi Raikkonen. Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo will start 11th, while Jean-Eric Vergne finished 18th but will start 16th due to gearbox penalties for both Romain Grosjean and Nico Rosberg.
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