Not only did Brawn GP fail to secure pole position for the first time in 2009 in qualifying for this weekend's Chinese Grand Prix, but Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button will line up respectively just fourth and fifth on the grid in Shanghai – after admitting to being somewhat 'shocked' by the pace of the Red Bulls and Renault ahead of them.
Having swept to pole position and victory in both Melbourne and Sepang, Button arrived in China comfortably atop the drivers' title standings and firmly intent on pulling off the early-season hat-trick to further cement his advantage. If he is still to do so, the British star knows he will now have his work cut out.
Though Button and Barrichello again led the way in Q1, the fact that they trailed Red Bull rivals Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in the low-fuel Q2 session – the first time over the course of the weekend when everyone's true pace really becomes apparent – was perhaps a warning sign that this time they would not be having things quite all their own way.
Indeed, solid if understeer-afflicted final runs from both drivers in Q3 were trumped by Vettel, Webber and an inspired performance by former double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, consigning Barrichello to the second row of the starting grid and Button to the third, just under four hundredths of a second further in arrears. The latter fears the Milton Keynes-based squad's turn of speed is no flash in the pan.
“We struggled in Q2 compared to the Red Bulls,” the 29-year-old is quoted as having said by ITV-F1
. “They seem to be very competitive .You'd say they were probably [faster] by three tenths; that's quite a lot of time, so I don't know how it's going to go tomorrow. We don't know what fuel loads they're on, but I'm guessing it's going to be pretty similar to us.
“Our car feels good around here, but there were a few cars quicker than we expected in qualifying. You could see in Q2 that the Red Bulls were very strong in the high-speed corners, and we knew then that we would have a fight on our hands. It's going to be interesting to see how the different strategies work out in the race. Of course we would rather be on the front row of the grid, but we will give it our best shot in the race tomorrow and see what happens.
“Our race pace, looking at it today and yesterday, seems to be a bit better than the Red Bull's, but we're behind and that's always very difficult. It's not a disappointment because we're still up there – we're still fourth and fifth – so it's not really a big issue, and for sure it's going to make the race very exciting. It's just going to be very tough tomorrow to come away with a victory, especially starting fifth on the grid.”
Those sentiments were shared by Barrichello, who nonetheless succeeded in out-qualifying his team-mate for the first time in 2009 – even if it was not for the top spot. What's more, the highly-experienced Brazilian – who triumphed in Shanghai's inaugural F1 outing for Ferrari back in 2004, in front of Button – suggested the fact that it was a non 'double-decker' diffuser car on pole should finally draw a line under all the 'bulls**t conversation' of late.
“I had a good qualifying session today, but you can see how F1 can progress so quickly,” remarked the São Paulista. “I attacked all the qualifying sessions really well, and whilst we were surprised to see that the Red Bulls were quite so fast, it makes for great competition at the front.