On a day of distinctly 'tricky' weather conditions when – as Christian Horner reasoned – it was far easier to make the wrong call than the right one, Mark Webber did not put a foot wrong in qualifying for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix at Sakhir, and his reward was a commanding pole position for Red Bull Racing, only the second of the Australian's F1 career.
Indeed, 'tricky' is something of an understatement for intermittent but heavy rain showers that turned the entire qualifying session into a lottery and led to some big-name casualties spinning out of contention in Q1. Neither Ferrari nor McLaren-Mercedes sent their drivers out early enough in the opening phase, anticipating an easing of the downpour – when it in fact only intensified. Webber, too, was later out than he perhaps should have been given the conditions, but the gutsy New South Wales native succeeded where Messrs. Alonso, Hamilton and Massa notably failed, and hauled himself into Q2.
After subsequently safely making it through to the all-important top ten shoot-out, Webber then audaciously gambled on intermediate tyres, hoping – against hope, it seemed at first – that the track would come to him as the rain abated. With rivers of water running across the Sepang International Circuit, it was a bold move indeed and one that at first looked to have backfired, but – much like Jenson Button's tyre call in Melbourne last weekend – it ultimately turned out to be inspired, as not only did the 33-year-old keep his RB6 on the track, but he also set two scintillating laps good enough for the top spot on the starting grid by well over a second. Job done.
“It was tricky today,” acknowledged Webber, under some pressure to perform in Malaysia following a scrappy showing on home turf around Albert Park six days ago. “When you look at the amount of standing water there was in places during Q1 and Q2, trying to get everything right and a clear lap was difficult, especially as there is a fair difference in pace between some of the cars.
“My Q2 lap on intermediate tyres was a bit of a three-point turn round Pedro [de la Rosa] and that was my quickest, so you knew you had to keep pushing; the conditions were changing so quickly. A few big names went out in the first session, which was a surprise, but it just goes to show how sensitive everything is to timing.
“The pole goes to Ciaron, my engineer, as he made the call for inters in Q3. I said 'have a look at the track, what do you think?' and he said 'yeah, let's go for it'. It was tricky in places [and] in the last corner there was a bit of aquaplaning, but I kept it on the black stuff and got the job done.”
Not far behind Webber in the final reckoning – in the order at least, with almost a full one-and-a-half seconds separating the pair in terms of lap time – was young RBR team-mate Sebastian Vettel, pole-sitter in both Bahrain and Australia. Up at the sharp end throughout, the 22-year-old German lapped third-quickest in Q1 and then fastest of all in Q2, but in the end the difference in tyre choice left the man from Heppenheim to valiantly snatch a second row starting spot rather than one on the front row – albeit well ahead of most of his key title rivals.
“Good job to Mark today,” Vettel praised. “It was very tricky at the start of Q3; there was a lot of water and it was the right thing to call the red flag – it was just impossible. I think there was too much water – the cars are quite low, so you end up swimming more than driving. In Q3 I think we did the right thing putting on extremes. The water disappeared quicker than the majority of people thought and Mark was on the better tyre in the end, but I think third is a good result for the team.
“It was a tricky session – it was important to get into the next round and then qualify as high up as we could, which we did. It's a shame as I had some 'moments' on my fastest lap – I was close to Nico [Rosberg], only about one tenth off I think, but if you look back there wasn't that much margin. I think we can be very pleased with third today, and everything is possible tomorrow.”