F1: Round 16 – Interlagos, Brazil – Qualification

A quite extraordinary rain-hit qualifying session has well and truly thrown the cat among the pigeons as far as the F1 championship is concerned, with Rubens Barrichello taking a spectacular home pole position – and his title rivals absolutely no where.

With rain the overriding factor of the day, qualifying actually turned into a marathon and was far longer than any Grand Prix at nearly two and three quarter hours. Of course, a considerable amount of that time was spent standing around in the pit lane assessing the weather.

Q1 actually started on time, but Giancarlo Fisichella aquaplaned and spun at turn 1 just 4 minutes in, leaving his Ferrari stranded side-on half on the track in a perilous position that forced the race director to throw a red flag to allow the car to be retrieved. There was then a 10 minute delay before qualifying re-commenced until conditions were judged good enough to resume.

Once qualifying was back underway it was clear that some big names were going to join Fisichella on the sidelines: the McLarens were both handling atrociously in the wet conditions, and championship contender Sebastian Vettel was also showing no signs of being fast enough to get through into the next round. His final attempt was still well off the pace and he pulled into the pits as the chequered flag came out, mired in 16th place. It was the most big name-filled Q1 elimination we’ve seen: Vettel ahead of Heikki Kovalainen, Lewis Hamilton, Nick Heidfeld and the hapless Fisichella; Red Bull, two McLarens, a BMW and a Ferrari made for a very expensive also-ran list.

“Wow! Our car was so bad. You couldn’t go flat-out down the straight,” Hamilton told the BBC afterwards. “I went to 70 percent throttle and the car let loose on me. Our downforce level compared to some of the others really shows in these conditions.”

“I think I went to the pool not to the race track today,” Vettel said. “Obviously it’s extremely disappointing, we were targeting to qualify much higher. That’s life. There was a window where the circuit was quickest but we couldn’t use it. We struggled a bit with traffic here and there, and then after when we had clean air it started to rain more heavily and that’s it.”

Q2 started five minutes later, but before anyone could put in a flying lap it was red flagged for a big crash involving Tonio Liuzzi, who aquaplaned on the start/finish straight, veered into a heavy impact against the pit wall that startled all the teams in their booths: they had been unsighted by all the spray in the air and hadn’t seen the impact coming, but all of them felt the reverberations when it happened. Liuzzi’s car ran down the pit wall and then across the track narrowly avoiding Kimi Raikkonen, to a final impact against the turn 1 tyre wall, coming to rest without any tyres of its own attached and leaving shards of bodywork strewn in its wake. A red flag was inevitable as the debris had to be cleaned up, and also as conditions closed in once again.

“I wasn’t expecting something like that because I was just being calm, following Kimi on the track so I could see his lines and if there were any puddles,” Liuzzi said. “Then I just lost the car in a big puddle in the middle of the straight. I didn’t touch the brake at all. I’d just backed off on the straight. It’s just part of the game unfortunately.

“The problem here is that [there is so much rain falling that] you get a lot of rivers, and it was pretty dangerous to go out,” he added. “Yes, it was risky, but it was okay. The problem is that because it’s qualifying, you can’t wait [for conditions to improve] to come onto the track because that wastes time. It happens.”

In fact it rapidly became clear that there would be no quick resumption as the rain came down even heavier. The subsequent stoppage lasted nearly an hour and a half as track inspection after track inspection reported no improvement in the circuit’s condition, and it looked as though qualifying might have to be abandoned altogether and the positions from Q1 alone might be used to set the grid – which would have suited Jenson Button just fine as that would have put him in 6th right behind his team mate and chief rival Barrichello in 5th.

But finally the skies cleared two hours after the session began, and Q2 was able to proceed. The sun started to come out and the track started to dry, so that every run through was faster than the last. It now became a matter of timing as to who would go through at the right time, without making a mistake or meeting traffic at a critical moment.

The one person for whom things were now going badly wrong was Jenson Button: he was the slowest person on the track, missing the critical moment to try switching from full wets to intermediates, and whose lap times did not improve no matter how many times he circulated. In the end he finished dead last (save for the already-eliminated Liuzzi) and only just in front of Vettel on the grid after having thought that at least the Red Bull driver was out of the picture.

“At the start of the session I had way too much understeer in the car on that run, when the circuit wasn’t wet like it was in the first session,” Button told the BBC. “I couldn’t do anything with the car and on lap three the rears started going away so that was it,” he added before admitting “We made a mistake not putting the inters on at the end of the session.”

The only way it could get any worse for Button would be for Barrichello to go on and claim pole position in a remarkably incident-free and efficient Q3. And that’s exactly what Rubens went on to do, putting in improved lap after improved lap as the track started to dry out and he, Mark Webber, Jarno Trulli, Adrian Sutil and Nico Rosberg vied for the top time. In the end it came down to a case of who put in the time at the right moment before the chequered flag came out, and the winner of the slot machine lottery was indeed home favourite and title contender Rubens Barrichello.

It was a moment that would have hit the Button camp like a sucker punch to the stomach at exactly the worst moment. With Vettel eliminated they must have thought they had it made: all they had to do was cover Rubens and get somewhere close to him on the grid and they were set. So they played it safe, and timid, while Rubens went out and took a gamble by going for broke.

Button’s timidity, and Barrichello’s heroic gamble, may end up defining the 2009 Formula 1 champion.

Qualification results

Pos  Driver       Team                  Q1 times  Q2 times  Q3 times
 1.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes        1:24.100  1:21.659  1:19.576
 2.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      1:24.722  1:20.803  1:19.668
 3.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  1:24.447  1:20.753  1:19.912
 4.  Trulli       Toyota                1:24.621  1:20.635  1:20.097
 5.  Raikkonen    Ferrari               1:23.047  1:21.378  1:20.168
 6.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    1:24.591  1:20.701  1:20.250
 7.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota       1:22.828  1:20.368  1:20.326
 8.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber            1:23.072  1:21.147  1:20.631
 9.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota       1:23.161  1:20.427  1:20.674
10.  Alonso       Renault               1:24.842  1:21.657  1:21.422
11.  Kobayashi    Toyota                1:24.335  1:21.960  
12.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    1:24.773  1:22.231  
13.  Grosjean     Renault               1:24.394  1:22.477  
14.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes        1:24.297  1:22.504  
15.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  1:24.645  
16.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      1:25.009
17.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes      1:25.052
18.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      1:25.192
19.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber            1:25.515
20.  Fisichella   Ferrari               1:40.703

Car weights

Rubens Barrichello did short fuel slightly to claim pole, and Kimi Raikkonen’s pace was boosted by going light as well, but neither seem to have gone too light just to claim glory and all are in good shape. However it’s looking particularly good for Mark Webber and Adrian Sutil, especially if they can get the better of Rubens off the start line as well …

Pos  Driver                             Weight (kg)
 1.  Barrichello  Brawn-Mercedes        650.5                  
 2.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault      656.0                  
 3.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes  656.5                  
 4.  Trulli       Toyota                658.5                  
 5.  Raikkonen    Ferrari               651.5                  
 6.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari    659.0                  
 7.  Rosberg      Williams-Toyota       657.0                  
 8.  Kubica       BMW-Sauber            656.0                  
 9.  Nakajima     Williams-Toyota       664.0                  
10.  Alonso       Renault               652.0                  
11.  Kobayashi    Toyota                671.5*                 
12.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari    671.5*                 
13.  Grosjean     Renault               677.2*                 
14.  Button       Brawn-Mercedes        672.0*                 
15.  Liuzzi       Force India-Mercedes  680.0*                 
16.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault      683.5*                 
17.  Kovalainen   McLaren-Mercedes      656.5*                 
18.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes      661.0*                 
19.  Heidfeld     BMW-Sauber            650.5*                 
20.  Fisichella   Ferrari               683.5*  

  1. 1 F1: Round 16 – Interlagos, Brazil – 18 October « <motorsport.ind.>

    […] jenson button, lewis hamilton, mark webber, rubens barrichello, world champion After a deeply disappointing qualifying session on Saturday, the prospects for Jenson Button winning the world championship today seemed bleak. His […]

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