• Fuel infringement cuts short McLaren driver’s celebrations
• More trouble for Hamilton in blighted season
The blight that has affected Lewis Hamilton’s season seemed to be over when he put in the thunderous lap to be the fastest in qualifying for Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix. After suffering some degree of bad fortune in each of the first four races this season no one would begrudge Hamilton this moment of hard-earned glory. Rarely has the British driver looked so happy as he punched that breathtaking time, half a second better than anyone else, to put himself on the front of the grid.
But that was before the stewards stepped in to examine the amount of fuel left in his tank and bring to an end the driver’s short-lived celebrations as he was made to sweat over their decision.
With third place in each of the opening three races, Hamilton has been the most consistent driver this year and his ability to drive within himself to protect his neurotically sensitive tyres has surprised a lot of people. After the stewards’ deliberations, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying and placed at the back of the starting grid.
This is a driver who has put behind him the worst year of his career, in 2011, when personal issues contributed to his disappointing season. This year, everything is going wrong around him, and he is not to blame.
An astonishingly unpredictable season produced another day of shocks, with Pastor Maldonado also clinching a place on the front row. And while there were two Saubers in the top 10 there was no room for McLaren’s Jenson Button – who was placed 11th but moved up to 10th after Hamilton’s relegation –or the Red Bull of Mark Webber, who won pole here on the previous two occasions. Felipe Massa, meanwhile, qualified his Ferrari in a miserable 17th, behind the Force Indias and the Toro Rossos. That performance was placed under a harsh light by the Brazilian’s team-mate Fernando Alonso finishing third in his upgraded Ferrari in front of his home crowd here in Barcelona.
Red Bull felt that Webber had done enough in Q2 and did not need to go out again, leaving the Australian with four sets of tyres for Sunday’s race. Button was plagued by handling problems, especially understeer, after he was fast in Friday’s practice session. His poor showing was the first time the British driver had failed to make the top 10 shootout since Spa last year, when he started 13th.
“I don’t know where it went wrong,” Button said. “All day I’ve struggled with balance. We were quickest on the soft tyre yesterday. I thought we would be reasonably competitive and at least get into Q3 but that’s not the case. I haven’t changed that much [on the McLaren] but struggled with the balance. I don’t know why. That final run, I had a lot of understeer. We’re out in Q2 and it doesn’t help because we don’t have any option tyres left for Sunday.”
The star of the afternoon, arguably, was not Hamilton but the Venezuelan Maldonado, who placed himself on the front row for the first time in his career.
The rebirth of Williams has come, appropriately, just after Sir Frank Williams 70th birthday. Last year Williams, dominant for so long during the final two decades of the last century, scored only five points all season as they finished ninth in the constructors’ championship, ahead of only the three small teams. But they have already won 18 points after four races and it might have been more than that but for some bad luck. That ill fortune was still dogging them here, where Bruno Senna was the only surprise casualty in Q1 after he hit the curb on T11 and then found himself in the wrong position for T12 and spun off.
“We have been working so hard trying to understand these tyres and to develop our car around them and we did a very good step forward for this race,” Maldonado said. “There is a great atmosphere in the factory and team. The car looks fantastic especially in terms of race pace. We have improved our worst thing, which was qualifying pace. So I am happy for the team, for my country and for myself. [On Friday] we thought the top 10 was possible, and this morning I was quite surprised by our performance, because our car was so quick on lower fuel. So this morning we thought it was possible.”
Maldonado had shown his pace in the third and final practice session, when he was second to Sebastian Vettel. He was fast again in all three qualifying sessions, culminating in that Q3 lap which gave him pole ahead of Hamilton, the first time Williams have reached the front row of the grid since Nico Hülkenberg grabbed pole in Brazil in 2010 in the wet. They have not had a driver on the front row in the dry since Webber at Monaco in 2006.
Vettel, like his team-mate Webber, decided not to go out in Q3 in order to protect his tyres and will start in eighth place. He said: “It was pretty different session today. It was extremely tight. From Q1 onwards we decided to go on the soft tyres. The first run in Q2 wasn’t good enough, so I had to go again and it was clear then that if we made it to Q3, we wouldn’t have any new soft tyres left.”