1 September 2012
Button flies to pole, Vettel and Schumacher slump
Jenson Button was the surprise of qualifying at Spa, finally nailing his first pole for McLaren by a big margin. But the biggest shock was Sebastian Vettel failing to make it to Q3.
What a difference a day marks. After a wet, cold and thoroughly depressing Friday at Spa, qualifying was held under picture postcard-perfect blue skies with puffy white clouds. The circuit still had some wet areas off line to catch the unwary, but the track itself was delightfully bone dry at last.
A great contrast for the spectators, but it made for a major headache for the team as they had to scramble to get into the rhythm of the circuit after losing so much running time the previous day.
McLaren initially seemed to have been thrown slightly off their game when Lewis Hamilton was unable to match Fernando's mid-session time of 1:49.401s because of the amount of downforce he was carrying, but a few minutes later Jenson Button - despite his familiar howls of concern about understeer - nonetheless managed to claim to top spot with a lap of 1:49.250s
However, Pastor Maldonado's switch to the soft option tyres sent a wave of fear throughout the field when he promptly popped to the top with a new benchmark time of 1:48.993s four minutes from the end of the session. With other backmarkers also looking to try the same tactic, even the leaders at the top of the timesheets started to worry that their progression to Q2 might not be secured after all.
In the end, Nico Rosberg spared everyone's blushes. He was clearly showing the consequences of missing out almost all of the practice time so far this weekend, due to the weather on Friday and then the gearbox failure on Saturday morning that will see him handed a five-place grid penalty for the start of the race. Even on the option tyres, Rosberg was unable to lift himself out of the bottom seven and thereby plugged the 'hole' next to the usual suspects (Caterham, Marussia and HRT) that stopped anyone else slipping out of contention.
As the action resumed, Maldonado was unable to replicate his option-powered rise to the top of the timesheets in the second session, although it was still looking pretty decent for progressing through to the third round. He was in any case now under investigation for impeding Nico Hulkenberg in Q1 at the Bus stop, a case that would be going in front of the race stewards after qualifying was completed.
It looked as though Button's hopes of a strong qualifying performance might be at risk when the McLaren engineers gathered at the back of his car to address a problem with the rear wing, but once he was released out to the circuit he immediately set a mighty 1:47.654s to head the times halfway through the session. Happy with that, he pulled back into pit lane and made no further appearance in Q2, leaving the rest of the field to sort out the rest of the top ten that would be joining him for the pole shootout third round.
Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso were through; and Kimi Raikkonen was similarly confident of getting through with his time of 1:48.414s and stayed tucked up on pit road, even though his time was eventually bested by Sergio Perez in the Sauber in the final seconds. Raikkonen's Lotus team mate Romain Grosjean was less secure and he was pushed down to eighth by the end of the session by late improvements by Mark Webber and Kamui Kobayashi, while Paul di Resta and Pastor Maldonado became the low-hanging fruit in ninth and tenth as the chief targets to be knocked out by the remaining qualifiers.
As the chequered flag came out, those cars still trying to make it through to Q3 included some surprisingly major names - including honorary Spa citizen Michael Schumacher and his compatriot, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel, who'd only failed to make Q3 three times before in his career with Red Bull. Surely this wasn't going to be the fourth?
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