Kimi Raikkonen will start his bid for a hat-trick of Formula One victories from pole position at the Nurburgring, but qualifying for the European Grand Prix was overshadowed by Lewis Hamilton's high-speed accident.

The Briton's off - in which Hamilton is understood to have escaped unhurt - caused a lengthy delay in proceedings, before Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso were allowed out to battle over a top spot that appeared on course for the #2 before a failure on the right-front corner pitched him off at the quick left-hand entry to the renamed Schumacher S.

Hamilton was slow to exit the car, and could be seen moving his legs on the onboard camera, as if to check whether there was any damage to his extremities. He was then attended to at the scene for some time before being taken away to the medical centre. McLaren has since confirmed that its prot?g? is seriously hurt, but doubt remains over his participation on Sunday.

The reasons for the crash are explained elsewhere, but repairs to the tyre barrier - which Hamilton hit almost head-on after skipping over the sizeable gravel trap - caused the session to be red-flagged for 20 minutes, leaving the pole protagonists to find ways of keeping their attention on the job at hand.

Hamilton was already six-tenths up on team-mate Fernando Alonso's target time when he went off, and that mark was not bettered when the session resumed. Jarno Trulli was the first to set an improved pole mark, but the Toyota driver was not expected to hold on to P1 for long, even though team-mate Ralf Schumacher slotted into second.

Felipe Massa - with whom Hamilton had been dicing as he looked for track position immediately before his off - was next across the line, the first of the big names to complete his final flying effort, and slashed half a second from the benchmark, Nick Heidfeld slotting into P2 to further demote the Toyota pair.

Massa's mark was not sufficient either, however, for both team-mate Raikkonen and Alonso were up at the mid-lap splits, the Spaniard marginally quicker than his Finnish rival, looking to provide some solace for McLaren. Flashing across the line, Raikkonen duly snatched top spot, taking another three-tenths from Massa's target, but Alonso lost something approaching half a second in turn five, dropping him perilously close to Massa's time and a place on row two.

Prior to the final runs, speculation surrounded Hamilton's on-track fate, and just how far the Briton would fall once the real battle for grid positions replaced the fuel-burning phase of the shoot-out. Most predictions saw him tumbling to row four but, in the end the five drivers below him after the opening phase all improved sufficiently to push the championship leader back to tenth - his lowest start since graduating to Formula One.

The immediate question is whether the Briton will be able to take up his position on the grid, with medical and mechanical matters to be attended to overnight. Providing a car will not be a problem for McLaren, although swapping to the spare car could entail further penalty.

Taking Hamilton's likely place in the top four was Nick Heidfeld, who now jets home to Switzerland to see his new-born son, while BMW Sauber team-mate Robert Kubica completes the top five ahead of Mark Webber, Heikki Kovalainen and the two Toyotas.

Williams lost both its drivers in the second part of qualifying, Alex Wurz unable to haul himself out of the drop zone and Nico Rosberg finding himself dumped into the bottom six by late improvements elsewhere, the pair winding up eleventh and twelfth, ahead of Giancarlo Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello and the two Super Aguris, Anthony Davidson and Takuma Sato having not made it out of the bottom six throughout the 15 minutes.

Davidson fared better than the two remaining British drivers, however, as David Coulthard and Jenson Button both made early exits from qualifying, unable to repeat their practice form and capitulating in the opening phase.

Both drivers found themselves in the bottom six 'drop zone' with just a handful of minutes remaining and, while Coulthard - who had been baulked by Red Bull team-mate Webber on his first run - left the pits too late to complete a warm-up lap before the chequered flag came out, Button managed to find time despite oversteer, but not enough to haul the Honda in the second session.

The pair were joined in the bottom quarter of the grid by the expected Spyker duo, Adrian Sutil and Manfred Winkelhock unable to do anything about the F8-VII's lack of pace, and the two Toro Rossos, with Tonio Liuzzi and Scott Speed failing to match their showing from free practice three, when they took eleventh and 14th respectively.

 

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