Nobody could have seen this one coming, least of all Nico H?lkenberg himself, but in a characteristically rain-affected, unpredictable Brazilian Grand Prix qualifying session, the man who is under pressure to hang onto his cockpit at Williams into a second consecutive season blitzed the opposition to secure his maiden pole position in F1 in only his rookie campaign.

At the scene of the Grove-based outfit's last victory in the top flight - with Juan-Pablo Montoya some six years ago - H?lkenberg proved to be in a class of his own as he secured Williams' first pole since the 2005 European Grand Prix at the N?rburgring and Cosworth's first in more than a decade, and in conditions that the 23-year-old had not even reckoned were good enough for slick tyres at the end of the session. He had the experience of his team-mate Rubens Barrichello to thank for that - the rest of it, he achieved all by himself.

Behind the former GP2 Series Champion, Sebastian Vettel narrowly pipped his Red Bull Racing team-mate Mark Webber to second on the grid, with Lewis Hamilton a frustrated fourth in the kind of changeable conditions in which he usually excels, and world championship leader Fernando Alonso - the only man who can mathematically clinch the crown this weekend - just fifth. Barrichello - the leading local star - Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher, a disappointing Felipe Massa and Vitaly Petrov completed the top ten.

No longer raining when the session began, but with the track still very wet and further precipitation forecast, Hamilton's prior prediction of a lottery looked to be pretty much spot-on - although thankfully this time, there would be no repeat of the chaotic three-hour qualifying that characterised the 2009 edition of the grand prix.

With intermediate tyres the order of the day and conditions treacherous, it was inarguably practice pace-setters Red Bull who had the most to lose, and the potential for traffic spoiling what is the shortest lap of the year only threw another variable into the equation.

Be that as it may, Webber was immediately - and comfortably - the fastest man in FP1 as all 24 drivers took to the track early on, mindful of the ever-capricious nature of the Interlagos skies. The on-form Schumacher was another to swiftly show his hand, before H?lkenberg and Barrichello turned it into the Williams show by vaulting to the top of the timing screens, the former ably demonstrating just why the 'Incredible' moniker so often precedes his surname as the FW32 clearly revelled in the spray.

Vettel and Webber wasted little time in displacing the pair, however, to make it a Red Bull one-two instead, before - with the goalposts constantly shifting - a flying Alonso leapfrogged them both to put Ferrari on top. RBR hit back before the session was out, with the Australian this time just denying his German team-mate, but Alonso subsequently bolted on another set of intermediates in the very dying moments to narrowly go quickest once more and end Q1 with a crucial psychological boost.

That meant the Spaniard entered Q2 ahead of Webber, Vettel, FP3 pace-setter Kubica, Mercedes Grand Prix's Nico Rosberg, home hero Massa, Barrichello, Schumacher and the off-colour McLaren-Mercedes' of championship protagonists Jenson Button and Hamilton, both some way shy of the benchmark as their tyre wear suffered in the tricky conditions.

Down at the wrong end of the order, however, whilst experienced Sauber veteran Nick Heidfeld - who fell at the first hurdle in Brazil twelve months ago - was able to haul himself to safety, Force India duo Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi were not so fortunate, and after the Italian went off early on and very nearly collected his palpably unimpressed team-mate upon rejoining the circuit, compromising both of their efforts, it began to become apparent that one of them would not make it beyond Q1.

With one of the pair invariably in the dreaded 'drop zone', as Liuzzi produced an effort good enough to save his own skin, it demoted Sutil - and with his tyres shot, the disgruntled Starnberg native was unable to successfully respond, missing out on Q2 for the first time all year by just under three tenths of a second, and facing a five-place grid drop into the bargain for his various Korean indiscretions.

The 27-year-old joined new team 'pole-sitter' Timo Glock - who endured a brief 'off-piste' moment of his own - Lotus' Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen, the second Virgin of local ace Lucas Di Grassi and Hispania duo Christian Klien and Bruno Senna amongst the seven drivers not to progress any further. Somewhat incredibly the first time the nephew of the legendary Ayrton Senna has competed at Interlagos, a spin when his car swapped ends through Turn Three did not aid his cause, but the limitations of the machinery underneath him meant he was never likely to make it much further anyway.

In Q2, Webber was the first man to dip into the 1m18s bracket, before the ever closely-matched Vettel nicked in front of his team-mate by a scant twelve hundredths of a second. Alonso moved from eleventh to third to re-instate the three principal title challengers in the three leading positions, whilst his own team-mate Massa was struggling woefully down in 14th place, more than a second off the outright pace and in the drop zone.

A disappointing Button subsequently joined the Paulista in the danger area, and as Massa headed out again on a new set of inters, he made it into the top ten but only just, by a tenth-and-a-half - and then had to back out of it on his next effort due to traffic. As the clock ticked down, Button snuck into seventh place by a similar margin, but improvements from others meant he would have to do it all over again on his next lap - and he couldn't.

With the British star's final effort being abandoned due to over-used tyres and Massa narrowly edging his way into Q3 territory by less than a tenth of a second, the most distant of the title contenders was out - joined by Kamui Kobayashi, Rosberg, Jaime Alguersuari, S?bastien Buemi, Heidfeld and Liuzzi - as Webber, Vettel, Kubica, Hamilton, Schumacher, Barrichello, Alonso, H?lkenberg, Petrov and Massa motored on to the top ten shoot-out.

With an emerging dry line causing the intermediate rubber to drop off towards the end of the lap, Hamilton was the early pace-setter in Q3, but it was not long before all of the drivers came peeling into the pit-lane to switch over to slicks, and all-of-a-sudden, with only five minutes remaining, it was anyone's, with the battle for pole position perched precariously on a knife-edge.

Slicks were not without their risks, however, as Vettel ably demonstrated by almost losing control of his Red Bull upon exiting the pits, and as drivers fought their cars the whole length of the lap, Kubica and Webber would go off-track shortly afterwards, both happily rejoining albeit with grass and muck all over their new tyres. With the scramble on, H?lkenberg was the first man to show his mettle, before Hamilton pipped him by just a tenth of a second and the normally dominant RBRs could manage only third (Vettel) and sixth (Webber).

Alonso was the next to soar to the top of the order by three tenths of a second, but the inspired H?lkenberg then lopped another half-a-second off that again - and timed it so that he would be the only driver at the end of the session to benefit from two last flying laps.

As times tumbled and positions changed, Hamilton proved unable to topple the Williams ace, whilst Vettel crossed the line less than a tenth of a second faster than Webber - but both similarly incapable of holding a candle to the young German. And then on his final flyer - a lap that, in hindsight, he didn't even need - H?lkenberg went a full second quicker again to underline his superiority. It was, quite simply, spellbinding.

He might not stay there in the dry on race day, but no matter - as the spectre of Pastor Maldonado hangs over him and he battles to cling onto his race seat at Williams in 2011, Nico H?lkenberg could not have given any better advertisement of his outstanding potential.

To see the qualifying times in full, click here

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