F1: Round 10 – Hungaroring, Hungary – Qualifying

Qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix was overshadowed by a chilling accident for Felipe Massa, and then narrowly-averted tragedy descending into farce just minutes later when a complete timing system outage left media, teams and even the drivers milling around in a state of confusion trying to work out exactly who was on pole.

With the twisty, dusty Hungaroring already difficult enough, it didn’t help when a storm after Friday’s practice sessions washed the track of what little rubber had been put down, and then Saturday saw fluctuating temperatures and high, changeable gusting winds making things even more erratic. Small wonder then that the cars looked incredibly twitchy, with even the best of them looking on the verge of a nervous breakdown – the Red Bulls repeatedly struggling with the last turn onto the start/finish straight in particular.

In Q1, the BMW nightmare continued with neither Robert Kubica nor Nick Heidfeld ever looking strong threats to break out of the bottom five elimination slots. With the supersoft tyres giving so much better performance, all teams had to dig into their allocations even this early in the afternoon to ensure qualifications, leading to a frenetic final few minutes that saw Giancarlo Fisichella pop into 11th … and then seconds later get eliminated in 17th. It was that kind of slot machine session.

Jaime Alguersuari finished Q1 in last place – a technical problem leaving him crawling to a halt in the final minutes, but the time still good enough to make him the youngest-ever qualifier for a Formula 1 Grand Prix all the same.

In Q2, the shock looked to be the elimination of Rubens Barrichello – the first time the Brawn cars have not made it all the way through in qualifying all season – but then it became clear that it wasn’t as simple as all that, and that Rubens had suffered a major structural problem at the back of his car before his final flying lap.

And then the cameras caught sight of Felipe Massa’s Ferrari embedded in the tyre wall out of turn 4. From that first glimpse it was clear that something unusual had happened: Massa had left completely straight tyre marks across the high speed turn, onto the grass and then the gravel, impacting the tyres without making even the slightest attempt to make the turn. The G-light warning the medics that the driver had been in an exceptionally high G-force accident was on; and there was no transmission from Massa.

Reports started coming in that Massa’s helmet had been struck by a piece of debris around the size and shape of a can of Coke which was quickly linked with Barrichello’s rear assembly failure; and suddenly everyone on camera had a horribly haunted look on their faces as the ambulances arived at the scene at high speed and Q3 was delayed. After all, just six days ago we’d learned of the death of 18-year-old Henry Surtees in an F2 accident in which debris (a tyre) from an accident ahead of him had entered the cockpit and caused fatal head injuries to the son of former F1 champion John Surtees.

Everyone held their breath for a few minutes – the blood pressure not helped by a sudden break in TV transmissions from Hungary for a minute or so. But finally pictures were restored and the news from the medical centre got much more encouraging, with confirmation that Felipe was awake, conscious, moving and talking – although clearly an airlift to the nearest hospital was mandatory, and Massa’s participation in the Grand Prix almost certainly ruled out.

As the medical helicopter took off, Q3 was already underway but it was difficult to focus on events. And then just as things were coming to the sharp end of qualifying, the timing screens abruptly went off line. We’d had minor technical failures all weekend thus far – the weather computers had been up and down for the last two days – but those aren’t nearly as critical as the timing screens as qualifying without times is meaningless.

The cars went round, the final chequered flag came out, cars crossed the finish line – and no one had a clue where they stood. Fernando Alonso stood in parc fermé so desperate to compare notes with his fellow drivers that even old rivalries were set aside for him to chat animatedly about the situation with Lewis Hamilton.

The BBC weren’t having the best of days; after the earlier break in transmission, they then had the classic live sports coverage nightmare of someone swearing live on national TV, as Jenson Button reacted to hearing Alonso’s lap time with a “Fucking hell!” Perhaps that’s why the controllers back in Blighty pulled the plug on the coverage shortly thereafter, before the commentators had been able to confirm the final running order, the poor presenter left to tell everyone to check the website for news as he signed off.

And from this complete confusion emerged the consensus that Alonso had somehow pulled out a brilliant pole position lap – it would have been nice to have seen it/known about it. And the two Red Bulls were right alongside, with Lewis Hamilton menacingly in 4th place and the only car equipped with the KERS system for a launch boost. Button, meanwhile, finds his worst fears confirmed – not only the Red Bulls up on the front two rows, but he himself back in 8th position.

But it was all very, very strange indeed. If we weren’t all so full of relief at the good news about Massa then we would have been outraged about the farcical end to the proceedings on several levels. As it is, for any number of reasons, there’s no doubt that this was one hell of a memorable qualifying session – the kind that leaves you hoping that the race itself will be a little more sane and normal.

Qualifying positions and times

Pos  Driver       Team                       Q1        Q2        Q3     
 1.  Alonso       Renault                 1:21.313  1:20.826  1:21.569
 2.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault        1:21.178  1:20.604  1:21.607
 3.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault        1:20.964  1:20.358  1:21.741
 4.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes        1:20.842  1:20.465  1:21.839
 5.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota         1:20.793  1:20.862  1:21.890
 6.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes        1:21.659  1:20.807  1:22.095
 7.  Raikkonen    Ferrari                 1:21.500  1:20.647  1:22.468
 8.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes          1:21.471  1:20.707  1:22.511
 9.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota         1:21.407  1:20.570  1:22.835
10.  Massa        Ferrari                 1:21.420  1:20.823
11.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari      1:21.571  1:21.002
12.  Trulli       Toyota                  1:21.416  1:21.082
13.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes          1:21.558  1:21.222
14.  Glock        Toyota                  1:21.584  1:21.242
15.  Piquet       Renault                 1:21.278  1:21.389
16.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber              1:21.738
17.  Fisichella   Force India-Mercedes    1:21.807
18.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes    1:21.868
19.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber              1:21.901
20.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      1:22.359

Massa update

“After the accident during the qualifying session of the Grand Prix of Hungary, Felipe Massa was airlifted to the AEK hospital in Budapest,” Ferrari have said in a press statement. “Felipe was conscious at the arrival at the hospital and his general conditions remain stable.

“Following a complete medical examination it emerged that he had suffered a cut on his forehead, a bone damage of his skull and a brain concussion. These conditions need to be operated on after which he will remain under observation in intensive care.”

Post-qualifying car weights

The reason for Alonso’s shock pole is confirmed: he’s running on fumes. Everyone else in the top ten is running pretty much the same distance, with Jenson Button’s poor performance partially explained by his having the heaviest load of the front five rows although not by a huge amount.

Pos  Driver                             Weight (kg)
 1.  Alonso       Renault                637.5
 2.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault       655.0
 3.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault       652.0
 4.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes       650.5
 5.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota        654.0
 6.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes       655.5
 7.  Raikkonen    Ferrari                651.5
 8.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes         664.5
 9.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota        658.0
10.  Massa        Ferrari
11.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari     671.5
12.  Trulli       Toyota                 671.3
13.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes         689.0
14.  Glock        Toyota                 679.2
15.  Piquet       Renault                667.7
16.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber             658.0
17.  Fisichella   Force India-Mercedes   680.5
18.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes   683.5
19.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber             666.0
20.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari     675.5
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