Nobody could have seen this one coming, least of all Nico Hülkenberg 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 – Hülkenberg proved to be in a class of his own as he secured Williams' first pole since the 2005 European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring 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 Hülkenberg 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.