Whatever the conditions, you can never count out Sebastian Vettel or his Red Bull team mate Mark Webber. While the duo hadn't looked particularly threatening in the appallingly wet conditions on Saturday, as the track dried out on Sunday morning they were soon rising inexorably up the timing screens until they were able to pull out a convincing front row lock out for today's 2013 F1 Grand Prix of Australia.
It has been a very unusual qualifying to say the least, with the setting of the starting grid taking almost 19 hours to achieve in total thanks to the small matter of some seriously delinquent weather in Melbourne. Saturday morning's free practice session had already been affected by showers, but that was nothing compared to the cloudburst that hit the Albert Park street circuit shortly before the scheduled start of qualifying. Long gone was the warmth, the blue skies and the sunshine of Friday: instead it was cold, windy, and the skies pregnant with more threatened downpours to come. The inclement conditions had already caused havoc in the paddock earlier in the day, hitting telemetry systems and causing a 30 minute power failure in the TV compound an hour earlier previously.
The start of Q1 was delayed by half an hour while track workers tried to sweep the worst of the standing water off the track, but finally race control signalled the start of qualifying and the drivers cautiously set off to see how bad conditions were. The short answer: very. Visibility for anyone running behind the rooster tails of water thrown up by the Pirelli wet tyres was non-existent, and aqua-planing a constant threat as Giedo van der Garde was quick to find out as he slid off at turn 5 and damaged his front wing.
Lewis Hamilton had a scare moments later when he spun his Mercedes at the exit of turn 2, lightly hitting the rear wing on the tyre barrier and almost becoming stuck as he spun his wheels impotently on the sodden grass run-off before managing to reverse out of trouble. Felipe Massa soon had a big spin at turn 12 which damaged the nose of his Ferrari, while Mark Webber overshot turn 11 in the Red Bull. Webber's mishap was copied by Williams' Pastor Maldonado a few minutes later, and Paul di Resta got in on the fun in the Force India shortly afterwards. But gradually, as the cars continued to circulate, the Pirelli wet tyres were getting to work clearing water off the racing line. Soon McLaren's Jenson Button led the way in switching to intermediate tyres and times quickly started to tumble.
Two accidents late in the session - involving Charles Pic (Caterham) and Esteban Gutierrez (Sauber) - triggered local waved yellows that thwarted many a final flying lap effort and left Nico Rosberg on top with a lap of 1:46.539s in the Mercedes, eight-tenths ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Lotus' Romain Grosjean. Pic and Gutierrez inevitably ended up in the elimination zone and were joined by Maldonado, van der Garde and both Marussias - F1 rookie Jules Bianchi managed to come out the best in the battle of the back row ahead of team mate Max Chilton and the Caterhams pair.
Just when the drivers were hoping that the track conditions might finally be easing up, they perversely decided to get a whole lot worse: a stormy deluge hit the track and it was followed by pulse after pulse of rain causing more and more delays in getting the session back underway. All the time the clock was ticking down to sunset: with the light already a problem because of the overcast conditions, by 6.50pm local time the FIA race officials decided there was no option but to abandon running for the day. Everyone would have to reconvene on Sunday morning at 11am (midnight GMT) to try getting Q2 and Q3 in the books some six hours before the scheduled start of the Grand Prix.
The weather was only marginally better first thing on Sunday, but as the time neared for the second attempt at staging Q2 the showers had finally started to die away leaving a damp but rapidly drying track for the drivers to work with on intermediate tyres. The session got underway on schedule, the two Toro Rossos first to line up at pit exit to lead the way indicating a concern about the potential for imminent further showers approaching Albert Park.
A lap of 1:40.423s saw Rosberg resume his place at the top of the timesheets just he'd finished Q1 the previous evening, but everyone was dealing with nervous, twitchy cars in the tricky conditions. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen both had moments on their initial laps, but Vettel was quickly on it to take over at the top with a lap time of 1:37.640s showing the general improvement in the track conditions suggesting that a change to slick supersoft tyres could be imminent. The McLarens were first to try it along with Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and Williams' Valtteri Bottas, but it was quickly evident from the way that Sergio Perez was squirming all over the place that it was still too soon for the switch and Button at least was quick to roll back.
While others wasted their time with their ill-fated slick gambit, Vettel and Rosberg stayed on intermediates and were vying to push the top time ever lower. Rosberg finished on top with a time of 1:36.194s, with Webber and Hamilton ending Q2 by slotting in behind him ahead of Button, who had salvaged his session by quickly reversing his supersoft misfire. Less fortunate were the six drivers who were eliminated: Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg, Force India's Adrian Sutil, both Toro Rossos of Verge and Daniel Ricciardo, along with both Perez and Bottas who were left ruing their too-slick strategy.
Almost before anyone could blink, Q3 was underway, with the top three from the previous session - Webber, Rosberg and Hamilton - leading the way, still on the intermediates. Rosberg banked the first flying lap of 1:33.684s but soon Vettel was on provisional pole with a time of 1:32.604s. Banker laps in the books, it was finally time for all the teams to throw the dice and see if it was finally time for the supersofts to show what they could do in the final moments of the ten-minute session.
Button's first slick lap clocked in at 1:32.485s, but he'd gone too soon and Hamilton annihilated that with his own effort of 1:29.184s. But that was quickly dismissed by Vettel who set the new benchmark seconds later with a lap of 1:27.407s, which only his team mate Webber looked close to topping until the Australian lost the backend of the Red Bull in a lurid power drift through turn 15 which meant he crossed the line four tenths behind.
As the chequered flag welcomes the other cars completing their final runs of the morning, it was clear that Vettel and Webber had between them achieved a Red Bull front row lock out. Lewis Hamilton captured an impressive third on his début for Mercedes and will start alongside Felipe Massa, who had out-qualified his Ferrari team mate Alonso by a mere three thousandths of a second.
After leading so convincingly in the early, wetter conditions in Q1 and Q2, Nico Rosberg could only manage a slightly disappointing sixth place on the grid alongside Alonso, while row four was an all-Lotus affair with Kimi Raikkonen just ahead of Romain Grosjean. Behind them, Jenson Button had indeed gone too early in Q3 and ended up with the slowest time of the ten runners, putting him just behind Force India's Paul di Resta.
Qualifying finally completed, the drivers and teams now had just over five hours to reset themselves and get ready for lights out: it might not have been smooth sailing up to now, but finally things were back on track for the start of the Australian Grand Prix!See full qualifying times