Fernando Alonso beat the pre-event favourite Sebastian Vettel to pole position for the Singapore Grand Prix yesterday, but the German got his own back even before the race has started.
As discussion turned to the benefits of pole position on street circuits, the Red Bull driver said nonchalantly, "Fernando won here two years ago, from 15th place..." And then with impeccable comic timing let the rest of the sentence hang in the air.
Gales of laughter swept the press room as everyone's minds turned back to that infamous inaugural race here where Renault chiefs Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds colluded with the junior team driver Nelson Piquet Jnr to cheat by staging the deliberate crash that eventually helped the Spaniard to victory.
Alonso's face matched the hue of his Ferrari overalls. Vettel never looked more schoolboyish as he smirked mischievously.
Alonso may yet have the last laugh, for his Ferrari looked highly competitive even though the circuit here requires an awful lot more downforce than did Monza, where the Italian car triumphed last time out.
Qualifying was run in trying conditions. For the first time at a race here it has been wet, and it transpired from the first practice session on Friday evening that the newly surfaced parts of the track take forever to dry out.
Add to that sections where the colour of the asphalt varies, making it very hard for drivers arriving at 170 mph to figure out whether they are wet, and you had a recipe for trouble. Qualifying thus called for brio tempered by a degree of avoid-the-walls caution.
Alonso's first run did the business, as he pushed Lewis Hamilton off pole position. Vettel, however, got his track positioning all wrong and was bottled up behind Michael Schumacher.
On their second runs Alonso did not improve but Vettel did, though not enough. Alonso's 1min 45.390sec stood up to give him his 20th pole, while Vettel's 1:45.457 put him ahead of Hamilton, who did not improve on his first-run time of 1:45.571.
"Because it always seemed to remain damp in some sectors we were not 100 per cent confident in the car, but we picked that up in Q1 [the first stage of qualifying] and Q2," Alonso said. "I was quite happy with my first lap, but I didn't know if it was enough to be pole, second or fourth. But we got 100 per cent out of the car."
Ferrari, however, bookend the grid after Felipe Massa's car rolled to a halt with electronics problems on his first lap in Q1, leaving him to start 24th without an official time.
"We were running some experimental things in the engine," Alonso revealed. "While we were trying to understand the problem on Felipe's car, we made some safe changes to avoid risk, going back from the experimental settings to standard."
Before his little joke, Vettel admitted that his qualifying had been messy. "The second run was OK but I ever so slightly hit the wall in sector two, but I was able to recover, but not enough. We had the car to be on pole, but we are only second."
Third and fourth on the grid, courtesy of Hamilton and Jenson Button, was very important for McLaren as a pointer to rest-of-season form and a big upturn since the last high downforce race, in Hungary.
"Perhaps there was more in the car but it was tricky out there making sure you got the gap [to the car in front]," Hamilton said.
"I was much too close to Jenson and losing a bit of downforce in the last sector on my first run. And my second lap just wasn't a good one. But I'm on the right side of the grid, and we've had pretty much the best starts of anyone right now - so we're in a good position. It's going to be an extremely tricky race tomorrow - if it rains tonight or tomorrow, it'll never dry. If it's wet, we've got our work cut out!
"But the Red Bulls are beatable, and Fernando proved that today. Clearly they don't have the two second gap they had. And our long-run pace is even better than our qualifying pace, so I think we'll have a good race."
- THE INDEPENDENT