Felipe Massa maintained his reputation as the best qualifier of the 2008 Formula 1 World Championship campaign, by storming to his fourth pole position of the season for the inaugural European Grand Prix in Valencia this weekend – as the anticipated surprises failed to materialise and the four key title protagonists annexed the top four places on the starting grid for the first time since Bahrain almost five months ago.
In cool and breezy conditions and with the weather uncertain, cars took to the track no sooner had the lights signalled the start of Q1. Nelsinho Piquet was one of the first men out, and came perilously close to kissing the concrete wall on his way to setting the first representative lap time, despite collecting a stray bird en route
Jarno Trulli – who had suffered with a lack of track time throughout practice due to various gearbox woes – soon demoted the young Brazilian, only to be displaced himself in equally short measure by Toyota team-mate Timo Glock, the reigning GP2 Series king still on a high from his Hungaroring podium.
Robert Kubica then blew that time out of the water by recording the first sub 1m39s lap of the weekend, with the Force India pairing of Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil – now benefiting from the Silverstone-based squad's seamless-shift gearbox for the first time – and Williams' Nico Rosberg also out on-track early on.
With dark clouds moving ever-closer in from the sea, Ferrari's Massa, on soft tyres, slotted into a lowly sixth place, just ahead of David Coulthard in the Red Bull Racing – which had proved to be a real handful on the opening day, able to trade lap times with just the Force Indias for company – with Kimi Raikkonen subsequently faring little better than had his team-mate.
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, added to Maranello's misery by going quickest of all halfway through the opening phase of qualifying, with the impressive Sébastien Bourdais – clearly enjoying a circuit similar in style to those on which he so regularly shone across the Pond in the Champ Car series – moving up to second place ahead of Kubica.
With Ferrari changing over to the favoured harder tyre, Hamilton's McLaren-Mercedes team-mate Heikki Kovalainen could curiously manage just ninth position. Compatriot Raikkonen, by contrast, was now flying on the harder rubber, setting the quickest time of anyone in sector one, though the end result would be good enough only for fifth.
Home hero Fernando Alonso made amends for a scrappy first effort by moving up into second place – to the evident delight of the partisan supporters thronging the harbour-side Juan Carlos I Marina circuit – four tenths clear of team-mate Piquet.
Friday practice star Jenson Button was again showing extremely well up in fifth, just behind Sebastian Vettel – making it both Scuderia Toro Rossos inside the top four – before Nico Rosberg shot up into second as the session neared a close.