A cluster of British drivers will start the Malaysian Grand Prix from the middle of the field – with very mixed feelings about how they ended up there.
Lewis Hamilton thought he’d qualified a disappointing fourth, behind the Ferraris and his team-mate Heikki Kovalainen, but worse was to come as both McLarens were penalised five places for blocking other drivers.
Next to him in 10th will be Toyota’s Timo Glock, then the row behind them is filled by Jenson Button and David Coulthard.
For the Englishman, qualifying 11th was more evidence of Honda’s gradual recovery. The Scot is six places back from his team-mate Mark Webber, but both Red Bulls will be just glad to be racing after facing exclusion on safety grounds.
The final Brit in the field, Super Aguri’s Anthony Davidson, qualified 22nd and last.
Overall, it was a qualification session that went some way to restoring the normal balance of power in F1 compared with the extraordinary events of the previous race in Australia.
Not only did the Ferraris comfortably monopolise the front row, with Massa repeating last year’s pole position, but high-fliers from last week such as Sebastien Bourdais and the Williams pair of Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima all found themselves propping up the field from the back.
The big story was the demotion of the McLaren drivers for travelling at slow speed on the racing line and impeding other drivers as they tried to set qualifying times.
After talking to the stewards, Hamilton said: “I was pretty much out of the way – if I held him up then I apologise for that.” The team said any obstruction was an accident, but the affected drivers – Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso – were having none of it.
Heidfeld said: “If they did the best that they could do, they didn’t do very well. I was approaching my last lap on the option tyre and it would have been my quickest lap if not for the McLarens driving in the middle of the racing line at 80kph.”
Hamilton had been discontented with his qualifying performance even before the penalty, commenting: “There wasn’t much grip in the third session and I struggled to find it. The set-up isn’t where I want it to be. We changed some things today and I’m not sure that was the right way to go. I have to find out where I’m losing time because I’m quite a long way off the Ferraris.”
Button, in contrast, was closer to them than he could have hoped during the dark days of last season when his Honda would have struggled to deliver milk. He lost a place in the top 10 shoot-out at the last moment to Glock, but was still satisfied with 11th.
“It was good, I was happy with qualifying,” he said. “To get P10 was very difficult. I went two-and-a-half tenths quicker during the second run and got my act together early.
“I ended up P11, which is where the car is. I’m happy with that if you look back to where we were three weeks ago. We’re there on merit and half a tenth is a lot here. I did a very good lap and looking at the weather, I’m not in too bad a position.”
Forecasts suggest there is a 50-50 chance of rain during the race.
David Coulthard could easily have spent race day watching the weather from indoors after stewards indicated they’d like to ask some terse questions about his car’s safety – its alarming disintegration during practice the day before had suggested the Red Bulls’ front suspensions were held together with Blu-Tak.
But the team was cleared to run in qualifying and Coulthard wasted no time worrying about the possiblity of further trouble: “What’s happened this weekend doesn’t concern me, as a racing driver you never think you’re going to have a car failure, so you don’t think about it, and I have complete faith in the team too.
“I was a bit surprised as in qualifying I was slower in the first sector than I had been in the morning practice. I’d lost some mechanical grip, which made it difficult to nail the middle sector.”
The team has set him a basic goal of scoring points, but they will also doubtless have their fingers crossed against a repeat of last week’s four-letter attack on Massa – an outburst that may also be in the mind of the BBC as they plan who will host their F1 coverage when they take it over next year, by which time DC is widely expected to have retired from racing.
Struggling Super Aguri has to take its triumphs wherever it can find them, and for Anthony Davidson just being able to run a solid number of practice laps was achievement enough.
The result was a small but noticeable improvement in pace that went some way towards compensating for the last-place qualification position.
Davidson said: “Another difficult qualifying session today for us. I think that we have improved slightly since the last race. My middle run this afternoon was good, but I struggled to find the right balance in the car for the last run.”