There was an inevitability about Jenson Button qualifying in sixth for his home grand prix in a season that he has hitherto dominated. He has won six of the previous seven races this season in his Brawn and such winning streaks are extremely rare. Only three others have achieved the feat in the 59 years of the championship.
Statistically, each new attempt to stretch the record was less probable than the last. Furthermore, Sebastian Vettel qualified on pole position for Brawn’s chief rivals, Red Bull. “We’ve made big strides here,” Vettel confirmed after placing himself in the perfect position for what would be a third grand prix victory of a young career. With the fastest car and fuelled longer than those around him, he starts as overwhelming favourite.
It wasn’t much of a day for the Britons or the sell-out crowd who came to watch them. Lewis Hamilton qualified 19th out of 20, his worst qualifying position in F1.
Intensifying Button’s problems was the performance of his teammate Rubens Barrichello, an ace around the fast, flowing corners of Silverstone where he has an extremely impressive record. During his time at Ferrari with Michael Schumacher he outperformed the seven-time champion three times from six during qualifying at Silverstone. Yesterday he put his Brawn on the front row alongside Vettel.
Silverstone, for me, is special,” said Barrichello. “I love it and I took everything I could out of the car in qualifying. I was really, really happy with the lap and I thought third was the best I could manage today, so second is great.”
Barrichello looks likely to have a tough time fending off the other Red Bull, that of Mark Webber, who qualified third quickest after a compromised lap but who is fuelled to run longer to the first pit stops and therefore has a strategic advantage over the Brawn.
Button was left on the third row of the grid, complaining of lack of front-end grip in the fast corners and a lack of rear end in the slower ones.
“I’m hugely disappointed not to be starting my home grand prix from further up the grid,” he said. “We knew that we would find it difficult here as our car doesn’t work so well at low temperatures and I really struggled to get the tyres into their working range. I struggled massively with understeer in the high-speed corners and then had oversteer at low speed, so it wasn’t the best balance for such a competitive qualifying session.
“Rubens’ driving style allows him to deal with this better than mine. When I try to be more aggressive with the car like that, I just lose feeling for the car and I don’t go any quicker.”
Button’s team boss Ross Brawn explained: “Our car is very easy on its tyres, which has been good at most of the places we’ve been to so far. But it’s relatively cool here and the tyre compound is quite hard, so we’ve been experiencing more difficulty in switching on the tyre’s grip than with the others. Similarly, Jenson’s driving style is extremely smooth and that’s something that’s probably making the problem more acute.”
Webber was fighting for pole with Vettel before being baulked into Stowe corner on his final attempt by the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, whom Webber angrily accused of “dreaming”.
“I think he must’ve been drinking vodka or something,” he said testily, knowing that a great chance of winning his first grand prix had been severely compromised. Webber is fuelled two laps lighter than Vettel. The Red Bull has always been well-suited to the sort of fast corners that abound at Silverstone but for this race it has been extensively upgraded with new aerodynamic parts that have accentuated that performance. The Toyota is another car made for high-speed bends and Jarno Trulli was able to qualify fourth, ahead of the Williams of Kazuki Nakajima, enjoying the best qualifying performance of his F1 career. Button lines up nestled between Nakajima and the other Williams of Nico Rosberg, with Timo Glock’s Toyota, Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso’s Renault rounding out the top 10.
Raikkonen was unapologetic when informed of Webber’s criticism, saying he did not feel he had impeded the Red Bull. He was resigned to his ninth qualifying place: “This is just our performance level. As we’ve seen before, the car is well balanced but just doesn’t have any grip.”
He at least did better than teammate Felipe Massa, who qualified 11th, 0.4sec slower at the critical time. “It’s pointless to look for one specific element,” said team boss Stefano Domenicali. “This is our current performance in this sort of temperature range on a track with so many fast corners.”
The Ferraris were the only cars using the KERS energy recovery devices allowed for the first time this year. Silverstone’s layout does not encourage sufficient braking for the devices to capture the deceleration energy. McLaren expect to reintroduce their KERS at tracks which are more suitable but BMW have controversially announced they are scrapping their KERS programme, causing a few raised eyebrows as they were the one team who last year insisted the technology be allowed after teams attempted to have its introduction postponed because of cost concerns.
The KERS-less BMWs qualified 12th and 15th here and will be hard-pressed even to make the points today. But they are at least in a better position than McLaren.
The first part of qualifying was red-flagged after a spectacular crash for Adrian Sutil. His Force India suffered brake failure as he approached the Abbey chicane and hit the barriers hard. He was uninjured but received a precautionary check at the medical centre. The red flag came at the worst possible time for world champion Hamilton, who was making his final attempt at graduating from the first session with a McLaren that badly lacks downforce. With the session ended early, he wasn’t able to complete the lap.
Mark Hughes writes for Autosport magazine