Felipe Massa blitzed the field in qualifying for the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos this weekend to secure his third 'home' pole position in succession – as Formula 1 World Championship favourite Lewis Hamilton came unstuck to leave himself at the mercy of the pack come race day.
Massa's sixth top spot of the season – and 15th of his top flight career – could not have come at a more crucial moment, and shifts the pressure onto Hamilton's shoulders as the race dawns. With Jarno Trulli and Kimi Raikkonen also separating the Ferrari star from his McLaren-Mercedes adversary, and rain forecast for Sunday, the grand prix looks set to be a thriller.
With the title battle poised on a knife-edge – and the shortest lap of the year having seen the top ten blanketed by less than four tenths of a second in the morning's final practice session – the tension ahead of qualifying was palpable. One small slip around the Autodromo Carlos Pace could turn out to be very costly indeed.
Home favourite Nelsinho Piquet was the first man to take to the circuit for Renault in Q1, with his team-mate Fernando Alonso having again led the way in FP3, albeit admittedly on low fuel. Toyota's Timo Glock soon displaced the Brazilian, though, with the Force Indias of Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrian Sutil similarly out on-track.
Rubens Barrichello produced a strong opening lap to push compatriot Piquet down to third, whilst the lion's share of the crowd's enthusiasm was reserved for Massa, as Trulli demoted his team-mate from the top spot and Heikki Kovalainen and Massa slotted into second and third respectively as the battle proved to be every bit as hotly-contested as had been anticipated.
Hamilton then silenced the grandstands by shooting to the top of the timing screens by just 13 hundredths of a second, as 2007 world champion Raikkonen – whose Ferrari was, in the words of ITV-F1
commentator Martin Brundle, 'understeering like a Cross Channel ferry' – needed two runs to put himself fourth.
Massa's second flyer was no improvement, but Sebastian Vettel conversely vaulted up from 17th into fifth in his Scuderia Toro Rosso, leaving Fisichella, Sutil Alonso and the BMW-Sauber duo of Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica in the danger zone with nine minutes remaining.
A spinning Glock between turns one and two destroyed both Renault drivers' efforts, whilst an improvement from Fisichella pushed Williams' Kazuki Nakajima – celebrating the first anniversary of his grand prix debut this weekend in São Paulo – into the drop area.
A significant gain by Piquet, however, put the under-pressure rookie third, seven spots clear of Alonso, as the two BMWs left their opening runs dangerously late, only venturing out into the fray with seven minutes remaining, and when they did so slotting into just eleventh (Heidfeld) and 14th (Kubica) positions respectively.