Spain – Qualifying – Maldonado on pole, Hamilton penalised

A dramatic qualifying session for tomorrow’s Spanish Grand Prix has resulted in Pastor Maldonado taking his first pole position. It is the first pole for the Williams team since Brazil 2010, and the first for the Williams-Renault partnership since 1997.

The surprises started in Q1 when Bruno Senna spun off while trying to progress to Q2. The Brazilian will be ruing his poor performance after team-mate Maldonado showed what the car can do.

Q2 saw the unexpected elimination of Jenson Button and Mark Webber. Button has struggled with the set-up of his McLaren all weekend, complaining of understeer throughout the practice sessions. Neither Red Bull seemed to have the pace to challenge at the front, and although Vettel managed to squeak into Q3, Webber was not so lucky, despite being only a tenth slower than his team-mate in Q2. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa seemed to re-discover his poor form, languishing down in 17th, while Alonso easily progressed to Q3. Maldonado topped the session, confirming indications from earlier in the weekend that the Williams FW34 works well around the Circuit de Catalunya.

The final session started with Sebastian Vettel going out on hard tyres for a very slow run, returning to the pits without completing a flying lap. The motivation for this strange tactic became clear when Vettel did not set a time in the session. He had simply been ensuring that he could save a new set of soft tyres for the race and also start first of the drivers who chose not to set a time in Q3. Michael Schumacher also chose not to set a time in Q3 in order to save a new set of soft tyres, and Kamui Kobayashi did not participate in the session, a hydraulics issue having forced him to stop on track at the end of Q2.

At the end of the session, Hamilton put in a last-minute stellar lap to beat Maldonado to pole by just over half a second. Fernando Alonso outperformed his car to qualify third, followed by the Lotus pair of Grosjean and Raikkonen, with Perez and Rosberg sixth and seventh respectively. And then the drama started.

On his in lap after taking pole, Hamilton was told by his team to stop the car on track. The immediate impression was that he must have been low on fuel. His car certainly wasn’t displaying any technical issues, having just set the fastest lap of the weekend. After the session was concluded, there was an announcement that Hamilton was under investigation by the stewards.

Article 6.6.2 of the Technical Regulations states:

“Competitors must ensure that a one litre sample of fuel may be taken from the car at any time during the Event.

“Except in cases of force majeure (accepted as such by the stewards of the meeting), if a sample of fuel is required after a practice session the car concerned must have first been driven back to the pits under its own power.”

The stewards found that Hamilton’s car had been under-fuelled due to an error by a member of the pit crew. There was no acceptable proof of force majeure, and so Hamilton was excluded from qualifying and will start the race 24th. That rather dramatic turn of events gives Maldonado his first pole position, the first in history for a Venezuelan driver. Hamilton’s penalty also means that Fernando Alonso will start second on the grid in front of his home crowd.

While Hamilton will be bitterly disappointed to start last after such a stunning performance in qualifying, his loss is the viewers’ gain, as we now get to watch him work his way up through the field. At the sharp end of the grid, it remains to be seen whether Maldonado can stay in front for an historic win, or if he will be beaten by a resurgent Alonso, or if a Lotus will top the podium for the first time this season. With both Red Bulls and both Mercedes cars a little further back than expected, there is likely to be a lot of action on the track. A thrilling race beckons.

The provisional starting grid is:

  1. Maldonado –  Williams
  2. Alonso – Ferrari
  3. Grosjean – Lotus
  4. Raikkonen – Lotus
  5. Perez – Sauber
  6. Rosberg – Mercedes
  7. Vettel – Red  Bull
  8. Schumacher – Mercedes
  9. Kobayashi – Sauber
  10. Button – McLaren
  11. Webber – Red Bull
  12. di Resta – Force India
  13. Hulkenberg – Force India
  14. Vergne – Toro Rosso
  15. Ricciardo – Toro Rosso
  16. Massa – Ferrari
  17. Senna – Williams
  18. Petrov – Caterham
  19. Kovalainen – Caterham
  20. Pic – Marussia
  21. Glock – Marussia
  22. de la Rosa – HRT
  23. Karthikeyan – HRT
  24. Hamilton – McLaren

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