F1: Round 3 – Sepang, Malaysia – Qualifying

If you were a film director seeking to out-do the spectacular story of the wonderful Australian GP last weekend, you may hit upon the solution of ordering up some rain 5 minutes before qualifying. Surely that will throw everything up in the air and produce the most gripping, unpredictable hour’s worth of sporting entertainment?

Yes, it will. And yes, indeed it did, because that’s exactly what was organised.

The big teams had forecasts telling them that there would be a pulse of rain, then it would dry up before another pulse. So Ferrari and McLaren both sat out the early minutes of Q1, and sure enough the rain came and went, and eased off – for all of 30 seconds. And the next pulse was longer and heavier than anyone had been predicting: suddenly all those cars that hadn’t rushed out at the start were in deep trouble. Lewis Hamilton – near the top of the timesheets in every practice session – couldn’t get close to a time that would get him through to Q2; neither could Felipe Massa, and Fernando Alonso ended up in three-times pirouette on one of his runs, also failing to get through.

Jenson Button was out earlier and recorded a time that put him into Q2; unfortunately the worsening conditions then saw him aquaplane into a gravel trap where he was beached, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to take part in any actual running in Q2 and all he could do was line up on the grid in 17th. Effectively, both Ferraris and both McLarens had fallen at the first hurdle – and Lotus and Virgin both got cars through to Q2 for the first time in their F1 careers.

Sebastian Vettel had been the first of the front runners in Q1 and he was duly rewarded with the top spot. He repeated the feat again in Q2, as conditions first improved and then started to worsen toward the end meaning that drivers who had missed the sweet spot like Michael Schumacher were only barely able to scrape into the top ten and hence into Q3. Vettel was surrounded at the top of the timesheets by an unlikely supporting cast including Adrian Sutil, Vitaly Petrov and Nico Hulkenberg.

Q3 commenced, and the heavens opened – and the red flag came out before everyone ended up embedded in the scenery. Qualifying was suspended for 20 minutes and then a gap in the weather appeared: mindful that worse weather was incoming, and that they were rapidly losing the light late in the Malaysian day, Race Control ushered everyone out onto the track for a final burst of activity.

At this point it was the ultimate F1 lottery. How each driver fared depended on not just their wet weather driving ability, but on the exact timing of their run, finding the right line, avoiding traffic, and the choice of tyres. Mark Webber opted for intermediate tyres where Vettel was playing safer with extreme wet conditions, but could he hold it on the track? And if he could, would it be the right choice?

As Button showed in Australia last week, fortune favours the brave, and Webber’s bold gambit paid off handsomely as he decimated the field, an astonishing 1.3s ahead of second placed Nico Rosberg who kept Vettel off the front row. Once again, then, it seems set up to be Red Bull’s day. Will gremlins – or the erratic Malaysian weather – ruin Red Bull’s chances, or will it finally be their turn to shine and get their 2010 F1 championship properly underway?

One thing’s for sure, with McLaren and Ferrari stuck near the back of the field and determined to charge through at the first opportunity, the start tomorrow morning at Sepang should be mighty interesting.

Qualifying positions

Pos  Driver         Team                   Q1        Q2        Q3
 1.  Webber         Red Bull-Renault       1:51.886  1:48.210  1:49.327
 2.  Rosberg        Mercedes               1:52.560  1:47.417  1:50.673
 3.  Vettel         Red Bull-Renault       1:47.632  1:46.828  1:50.789
 4.  Sutil          Force India-Mercedes   1:49.479  1:47.085  1:50.914
 5.  Hulkenberg     Williams-Cosworth      1:49.664  1:47.346  1:51.001
 6.  Kubica         Renault                1:46.283  1:46.951  1:51.051
 7.  Barrichello    Williams-Cosworth      1:50.301  1:48.371  1:51.511
 8.  Schumacher     Mercedes               1:52.239  1:48.400  1:51.717
 9.  Kobayashi      Sauber-Ferrari         1:48.467  1:47.792  1:51.767
10.  Liuzzi         Force India-Mercedes   1:49.922  1:48.238  1:52.254
11.  Petrov         Renault                1:47.952  1:48.760
12.  de la Rosa     Sauber-Ferrari         1:47.153  1:48.771
13.  Buemi          Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:48.945  1:49.207
14.  Alguersuari    Toro Rosso-Ferrari     1:48.655  1:49.464
15.  Kovalainen     Lotus-Cosworth         1:52.875  1:52.270
16.  Glock          Virgin-Cosworth        1:52.398  1:52.520
17.  Button         McLaren-Mercedes       1:52.211
18.  Trulli         Lotus-Cosworth         1:52.884
19.  Alonso         Ferrari                1:53.044
20.  Hamilton       McLaren-Mercedes       1:53.050
21.  Massa          Ferrari                1:53.283
22.  Chandhok       HRT-Cosworth           1:56.299
23.  Senna          HRT-Cosworth           1:57.269
24.  di Grassi      Virgin-Cosworth        1:59.977
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