He may have been officially the 'quickest' driver of the day at Fuji Speedway, but that was ultimately of little use to Formula 1 World Championship contender Felipe Massa, as last-gasp qualifying improvements by some of his rivals have left him to start the Japanese Grand Prix from just fifth on the grid.
It had been literally nip-and-tuck between Massa and McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton – the driver who he trails by seven points in the title standings with three races left to run and 30 points remaining up for grabs – throughout both practice and Q1, but the pendulum seemed to have swung in the Ferrari star's favour when he set what would turn out to be the best time of the day in Q2, almost two tenths up on the Briton.
Critically, however, the São Paulista slipped behind not only Hamilton, but also his seemingly rejuvenated team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, the second McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen and Renault's Fernando Alonso as the session drew to a close – leaving him, from two rows behind his chief competitor for the crown, with a considerable job to do come race day.
“A shame,” the 27-year-old summarised. “Today I was the quickest man on-track – but at the wrong moment. In Q3, I never had the right amount of grip from both sets of tyres that I used. On my first run I was a bit cautious on my 'out' lap and so suffered in the first sector, making a mistake at turn three.
“On the second run I did the opposite and found myself without grip at the end of the lap, so I've ended up fifth on the grid, which is definitely not an easy place to be. I will try and work my way up in the race to score big points for the championship.
“All-the-same, the set-up on the car is good and we should be competitive. The first corner? It's similar to the one at the Hungaroring, so I hope I can manage to repeat the good start I got there.”
Massa's lower-than-expected grid position could also give the Scuderia
something of a headache on race day, should Raikkonen's superior form continue and the defending F1 World Champion end up in a position where he is costing the Brazilian extra points, but without being directly ahead of him.
“Obviously we were hoping for a different result,” acknowledged the Maranello-based outfit's team principal Stefano Domenicali, “especially given our potential. It's a shame for Felipe, who had been quickest in Q2 before suffering with a lack of grip from the tyres in Q3.”
“It was a somewhat contradictory session,” added Ferrari technical director Luca Baldisserri, “both in terms of the final result and of the various performance levels through the field. In the first two sessions, Felipe had shown himself to be very quick and to have found the right balance on the car, while Kimi was struggling a bit.
“In Q3 the situation was pretty much reversed, and specifically Felipe found his sets of tyres producing inconsistent performance, offering less grip than previously. Hence his fifth place on a grid where the time differences are minimal.”