Lewis Hamilton will start the French Grand Prix from 13th place – the best position available in the face of Ferrari domination and the 10-place penalty imposed for his Canada pitlane error, but still a disappointment to him.
Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa were far ahead of the field in qualifying, with the Finn winning the battle to post Ferrari’s 200th pole position.
Hamilton’s demotion from third, combined with subdued performances by Heikki Kovalainen and the two BMWs, left empty space for ambitious midfield teams to fill – with Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli rising to the occasion to stake out the second row of the grid.
Kovalainen moves up to fifth after his team-mate’s penalty, with Robert Kubica next to him. The Pole only sneaked into the final qualification session in 10th place – fellow BMW driver Nick Heidfeld missed out by two places.
Behind them will line up the two Red Bulls, Mark Webber ahead of David Coulthard, with Timo Glock and Nelson Piquet Jr rounding out the revised top 10. Hamilton will start between the two Toro Rossos.
The McLaren driver felt his third-placed time was not as good as it ought to have been: “It was quite a disappointing qualifying for us and for me. I have to apologise to the team because I didn’t do a great job at all.
“On my first and second lap I made the same mistake on the exit of Turn Seven. I went wide and for sure lost three tenths, but that is life, I was pushing and trying to get the best out of the car. I believe I did in most areas apart from that one.
“But we missed out and we will push hard tomorrow.”
He is taking some comfort from Raikkonen’s 2005 performance at the same circuit, where he finished second from 13th on the grid: “He has shown that you can do it.”
But he has tried to avoid brooding about the penalty and its effects: “It doesn’t help obviously, but it doesn’t hang over you. Rules are rules, we will do the best job we can, take it on the chin, learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
By contrast, David Coulthard was quietly satisfied with his fourth-row spot. Red Bull has suffered all season from an inability to achieve results with both cars in the same race, but the whole team was positive about the qualifying performance.
Coulthard said: “It’s been very close with Renault and also our sister team this weekend, both have been looking very quick, but in the end we have both our cars in the top ten. I have a reasonable fuel load, so I’m pretty happy with my performance today.”
And team boss Christian Horner said the team had managed a good recovery after a difficult Friday: “Both drivers are much happier with the car today. It was a strong performance from both sides of the garage to qualify for Q3 and, lining up in what will become seventh and eighth tomorrow with Lewis’ penalty, we think we’re reasonably placed. We’re looking forward to tomorrow’s race.”
Honda had less to cheer about. Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello proved equally matched – and equally slow, qualifying ahead of only the Force India cars. Nico Rosberg’s 10-place penalty will gift them a place each, but “character building” was the most positive judgement the team could come up with about the session.
A puzzled Steve Clark, head of race and test engineering for the team, said there were no specific problems, just a general lack of pace: “On paper this is a track which should play to our strengths much more than Montreal, so we have been rather surprised and disappointed.”
Button, too, was disappointed: “The car was well balanced and we are pretty much getting the maximum performance from it, however unfortunately our pace reflects where we are at this track.
“My last run was slow as I was called into the weighbridge and then had to wait in the pit box as there was not enough time to go back into the garage before my final run. That meant that my tyres had cooled down which compromised my lap, although I don’t think we could have improved enough to go through to Q2 anyway.
“Hopefully we can be more competitive in race trim but it’s disappointing and unexpected as we thought that the car would perform better around this circuit.”
But if Honda was gloomy, the team’s Japanese rival Toyota was another outfit that felt it had performed as well as it could have hoped. Trulli said they had a particular reason to want to succeed: “Clearly this is a particularly important weekend for us as we are remembering Ove Andersson and everything he has done for us. This is a good start and we want to dedicate everything we achieve this weekend to him.”
Andersson, the first boss of the Toyota F1 team and afterwards a consultant, died in a vintage rally crash on June 11 in South Africa.
Edit: Stewards later imposed a five-place penalty on Kovalainen for impeding Mark Webber. The Australian was on a hot lap when he rounded a corner to find the Finn and Kazuki Nakajima side-by-side and was forced to slow, ruining the run.
Revised starting line-up
With updated placements due to penalties
- Kimi Raikkonen – Ferrari
- Felipe Massa – Ferrari
- Fernando Alonso – Renault
- Jarno Trulli – Toyota
- Robert Kubica – BMW Sauber
- Mark Webber – Red Bull-Renault
- David Coulthard – Red Bull-Renault
- Timo Glock – Toyota
- Nelson A. Piquet – Renault
- ** Heikki Kovalainen – McLaren-Mercedes
- Nick Heidfeld – BMW Sauber
- Sebastian Vettel – Toro Rosso-Ferrari
- * Lewis Hamilton – McLaren-Mercedes
- Sebastien Bourdais – Toro Rosso-Ferrari
- Kazuki Nakajima – Williams-Toyota
- Jenson Button – Honda
- Rubens Barrichello – Honda
- Giancarlo Fisichella – Force India-Ferrari
- Adrian Sutil – Force India-Ferrari
- * Nico Rosberg – Williams-Toyota
* penalised 10 places for accident in pitlane at Canadian Grand Prix
** penalised 5 places for blocking during qualifying