A chronic lack of grip saw Robert Kubica fail to make it through the opening phase of qualifying for the very first time in his Formula 1 career in Shanghai today – but perhaps even more worryingly still for BMW-Sauber, was the revelation by team-mate Nick Heidfeld that eleventh place was 'the best he could get out of the car'.
In 42 previous outings in the top flight since making his debut back in mid-2006, Kubica has never started lower than 14th on the grid, in Belgium two years ago. He will begin the Chinese Grand Prix, however, from a lowly 17th – benefiting a spot from Timo Glock's five-place grid penalty, but missing out on Q2 by more than two tenths of a second and bringing to an end his two-race run of top six qualifying positions in 2009.
“The car had no grip and was not at all easy to drive,” bemoaned the 24-year-old Pole, an outside championship contender for much of last season. “I struggled with the softer tyre compound. After this morning's session I didn't expect this at all, as the gap between the softer and harder tyres was bigger then. Additionally I made a mistake braking in turn twelve which cost me lap time.”
Heidfeld, for his part, missed out on Q3 for the third time this year – having been promoted into the top ten in both Australia and Malaysia as a result of other drivers' penalties – but in China he failed to miss it by much, a scant hundredth of a second shy of making the cut.
In contrast with Kubica – who tried it but didn't like it during free practice – the experienced German is sticking with KERS for the grand prix, and after confessing to having extracted all there was from his F1.09 in qualifying, the man from Mönchengladbach is now praying for rain on race day in an effort to repeat his Sepang podium heroics.
“My first and quickest lap in Q2 was the best I could get out of the car,” stated the 31-year-old, “and it was a really good one. I was hoping to get an even better lap time on the second run just because the track conditions always improve during qualifying, but then for some reason with that set of option tyres the grip wasn't there. We have to find out why that was.
“I missed the top ten by just one hundredth of a second, but nevertheless it is obvious we have a lack of pace. We hope an aerodynamic update, which will come for the Spanish Grand Prix, will help us. For now we have to get the most out of the situation and for tomorrow there is a chance of rain, which would be great. We will think carefully about our race strategy now. As I'm out of the top ten I'm free to choose my fuel load.”
The session has indeed left the Bavarian outfit with much work to do if it is to be more of a force on Sunday, especially with chief rivals Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes both now seeming to have stolen a march on them. BMW Motorsport Director Dr Mario Theissen and the squad's head of engineering Willy Rampf acknowledged that there can be no room for respite.
“Today's qualifying was very disappointing,” underlined Theissen. “Data evaluation from free practice indicated that our car would not work on this track. Both drivers complained about a lack of grip, and we didn't manage to solve this problem. Because of these circumstances, both drivers had difficulties driving a perfect lap – this also affected our grid positions. We now have to get the best out of our situation with a good race strategy.”
“We expected something completely different after the results of the first two races,” concurred Rampf. “Of course with these disappointing starting positions we cannot be happy. In comparison to other teams, we have lost some ground. Now to get closer to the top we have to reduce the gap with an intensive development programme.”