Sebastian Vettel underlined Red Bull Racing's supremacy around Silverstone this weekend with a stunning pole position for the British Grand Prix – as home hero Jenson Button endured the worst qualifying of his miraculous season to-date in front of his adoring partisan supporters, and Lewis Hamilton the worst of his F1 career.
The final part of the session looked set to be a shoot-out between Shanghai star Vettel and team-mate Mark Webber, who has always gone well around the Northants circuit and triumphed there in International F3000 nine years ago. However, despite seeming to hold the upper hand over the sport's youngest-ever grand prix-winner in the 'low-fuel' Q2 running and throughout the first half of Q3 – and by a not inconsiderable margin to-boot – a mistake on the first lap of his second run seemed to knock the Australian's progress, and traffic on his final effort saw him come up almost four tenths of a second shy at the close...albeit just an agonising twelve hundredths adrift of a spot on the front row.
Webber was separated from the sister RBR by the Brawn GP of Rubens Barrichello, a former British Grand Prix winner for Ferrari and a man who rates Silverstone as his favourite track on the F1 calendar. Jarno Trulli took a strong fourth as Toyota demonstrated themselves to be 'best-of-the-rest' once again, with a late charge from Kazuki Nakajima earning the Japanese ace comfortably the finest qualifying position of his fledgling top flight career so far in fifth, two spots ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg, with Button a low-key sixth and unable to pull a surprise out of the bag as he has been capable of doing on previous occasions this year.
The top ten was completed by Timo Glock in the second Toyota, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen in the only Ferrari to make the Q3 grade and former double title-winner Fernando Alonso in the leading Renault, a full nine positions ahead of erstwhile team-mate Hamilton on the very back row. However, if the McLaren-Mercedes star looks out for the count come rain or shine, with warmer weather forecast for race day, compatriot Button's hopes may not be altogether over yet...
The highest-profile Q2 victim was the Ferrari of Felipe Massa in eleventh, a driver who has never been at his best around Silverstone – recall his five spins in the rain last year. The Brazilian was joined by the two BMW-Saubers of Robert Kubica (twelfth) and Nick Heidfeld (15th), with the latter kicking up the dust as the 2008 British Grand Prix runner-up grappled around desperately but ultimately fruitlessly for grip. The other two to fall by the wayside before the top ten shoot-out were Heikki Kovalainen in 13th and Renault's under-fire Nelsinho Piquet, who will take the start alongside the Finn on the seventh row of the grid.
A man who nearly joined them in the cut-off zone, though – to the consternation of the heaving grandstands – was world championship leader Button, with Brawn GP's updates for the weekend seemingly not yielding the desired effect in terms of performance. To the relief of his thousands of fans all around the circuit, however, the 29-year-old narrowly made it to safety by a scant two tenths of a second to grab eighth in the final reckoning.
He would trail, however, Red Bull pairing Vettel and Webber – with the Chinese Grand Prix winner requiring a second run to get the better of the New South Wales native, who thoroughly dominated the majority of the 'low-fuel' session and was the only driver not to feel the need to venture out for a second effort – the consistently impressive Trulli, the faster Brawn entry of Barrichello, Raikkonen, the on-form Nakajima, the sister Williams of Rosberg, Button, Alonso and Glock, who like in Turkey a fortnight ago appeared unable to extract the same kind of pace out of the TF109 as could Trulli.
The major incident of Q1 was the sizeable shunt suffered by Force India's Adrian Sutil at Abbey, when a suspected brake problem on his car pitched the young German off the circuit and into the barriers at high speed, tearing the monocoque apart. That brought out the red flags, and with just 24 seconds of the session remaining it left the man from Starnberg – ahead of the 'home' race for his team, being literally just across the road from its factory – thankfully unharmed but nonetheless a Q1 casualty in 18th, along with team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella (16th), Scuderia Toro Rosso pairing Sébastien Bourdais (17th) and Sébastien Buemi (20th) and, most shockingly of all, defending F1 World Champion Hamilton.
After setting pole position for the British Grand Prix in 2007 and producing a mesmerising performance in torrential conditions to triumph in 2008, the outcome marked the McLaren star's worst-ever qualifying position in 43 outings at the highest level. On his final 'flyer' when the red flags flew, for the fans' favourite the cruel misfortune could not possibly have come at a worse time.