Alonso reigns at a wet and wild Silverstone
7 July 2012
The only thing that was predictable about qualifying for the British Grand Prix was how thoroughly unpredictable it turned out to be, in a session that saw a 90 minute red flag, an ignominious early exit for one of the home favourites, and a demonstration of world class wet-weather driving from two former world champions - not to mention a certain Australian gentleman digging deep and showing true grit.
A chaotic qualifying session got underway just minutes after a new rain front started to move over the Silverstone circuit. That resulted in all 24 cars queuing right down pit lane to get out on the track as soon as possible, before the track got too wet to set competitive qualifying times or the conditions worsened still further.
In fact the rain lessened somewhat as Q1 went on, to the point where the two Saubers even risked going out on slicks rather than intermediates as the clock counted down. But that was too ambitious, since while the conditions in one part of the track would momentarily improve they would promptly worsen somewhere else, the entire character of the track fluctuating almost minute by minute and metre and metre around the 3.66-mile circuit.
That made it a complete lottery over who got the chance to get a fast lap: it came down to the changing conditions and being able to find enough room ahead to not get hung up in traffic. Cars were falling over each other, and even team mates proved a danger as Lotus duo Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen came close to finding on their outlaps. Raikkonen had in any case been told that his KERS was out of action, making the next 20 minutes even more of a struggle for him than it might have been.
In contrast to usual qualifying practice, the cars came out on their intermediates set to run for as long as their fuel loads would take them. No resting up in pit lane today, waiting for the optimal moment to come out: all that mattered was being out on track throughout, ready to take advantage of the slightest easing of the treacherous conditions.
It soon became clear that among the drivers facing a premature exit were all three of the British contingent. Lewis Hamilton and Paul di Resta managed to stay just out of reach of the danger zone, but Jenson Button was firmly in it. He had one last run after bolting on a new set of intermediate tyres, and it looked to be coming together - at least until it got to the final complex of Vale and Club which was getting the worst of the continuing showers.
Not only did the corners slow Button's finally post-chequered charge, it also caught out Timo Glock who spun the Marussia out of the final corner and left the car stranded right across the start/finish straight - and crucially, bringing out the yellow flags in the area. Button backed off and crossed the line down on the time he needed to make it through to the second part of qualifying. He was out.
The other cars failing to progress were the usual line-up of Marussia, Caterham, and HRT drivers; the man most relieved by Button's woes was Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, who just sneaked into Q2 as a result.
Five minutes later and the cars - now down to just 17 of them - queued up once more for the start of Q2, but conditions were going downhill fast. The size of the rooster tails was increasing by the minute, and any talk of slicks was a fond but very distant memory. The two Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa risked a run on intermediates but found them hopeless for the donations, so they wasted time coming back onto pit lane to join the rest of the field on extreme wets.
With conditions getting seriously bad, the number of scary incidents spiked: trying to make up for lost time at the start of Q2, Alonso spun and just managed to keep it off the wall at Chapel and was almost copied by his team mate just a few minutes later, while Michael Schumacher was off-roading almost more than he was seeing anything of the tarmac proper. Finally there was a chorus of radio calls from the drivers indicating that the conditions were simply too bad to continue, and sure enough the red flag came out with just under six and a half minutes remaining of the session as the rain incontrovertibly tipped over into the torrential downpour category.
Now the drivers faced a lengthy delay of over 90 minutes for the rain to stop and for the sluggish Silverstone drainage to get rid of the water that had flooded the track surface. As things stood, Sergio Perez had lucked into the top spot in the timings with a lap of 1:59.092s while Pastor Maldonado, Paul di Resta, Romain Grosjean and Michael Schumacher were all in the provisional drop zone, along with the two Ferraris who had started Q2 on intermediates and missed their chance to set a fast lap before the weather deteriorated. Bruno Senna hadn't even ventured out to set a fast lap at this point.
Finally the skies cleared and the sun even put in a weakly appearance as track workers swept the standing water off the track, allowing qualifying to finally resume. Acutely aware of his knife-edge position, Maldonado took his place at pit exit with over three minutes to do, while other teams were still discussing the right strategy and tyre selection for the remaining six minutes and 19 seconds on the clock. Sauber gambled by going for the intermediates while everyone else stayed on full wets, and the Toro Rosso pair decided not to join the initial rush out on track and were the last to join the fray, but neither strategy yielded a place in Q3.
It was a mad scramble as the time ran out and conditions continued to improve, with even the most untidy and ragged lap seemingly vaulting cars high up the running order, only for them to slide down the positions again as the next cars came over the line. Paul di Resta thought he'd done just enough to get through to the final part of qualifying, only to be pushed down by last-gasp efforts from Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel - although both seemed to be set while there were yellow flags out on the track for Romain Grosjean's beached Lotus in the wet gravel at Vale.
When the chequered flag came out, di Resta was unhappy to find himself consigned to the sidelines along with Sauber's Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi, Mercedes' Nico Rosberg, the Toro Rossos of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo and Williams' Bruno Senna. Hamilton had set the fastest time of 1:54.897s, but that counted for nothing as all times were wiped in preparation for Q3.
That meant another tricky tyre choice for the teams: Schumacher, Raikkonen and Hamilton opted to stay on the full wets, but Hamilton soon decided that was a serious miscall and he was quickly back into the McLaren pit box to change for intermediates. A few minutes later and the remaining wet-shod cars also admitted defeat and pitted, leaving them only enough time for a couple of late attempts on their new intermediates.
As the final seconds ticked away and the rain started to fall again, it looked like pole was coming down to a battle between the Ferrari and Red Bull camps. The chequered flag had already come out by the time Alonso crossed the line to set the best lap of Q3 with a 1:51.746s, and Mark Webber's final lunge fell short by an achingly close 0.047s.
Sebastian Vettel looked to be a threat, but the conditions in the final corners seemed to be deteriorating again and he ultimately fell short, slotting in ahead of Felipe Massa but behind the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher who had somehow pulled out a late lap of 1:52.020s to go third and remind everyone that he's not been known down the years as the rain-meister for nothing.
Lewis Hamilton meanwhile ended up a disappointing eighth place behind Kimi Raikkonen and Pastor Maldonado, and just ahead of Nico Hulkenberg. Romain Grosjean was unable to take part in Q3 after being beached at the end of the previous session.
The end had been a long time in coming, but it had been an exciting, rewarding and fitting climax to one of the most engrossing and certainly by far the longest of qualifying sessions of the year.