As Fernando Alonso chased Nico Hulkenberg in the early stages of the Brazilian Grand Prix, it was apparent that on the long climb at the end of the lap the Ferrari was making little impression on the Williams, and you had to be impressed by what Cosworth has achieved this season. Rubens Barrichello suggests that ‘driveability’ isn’t all it might be, but on horsepower – so long as the engine is reasonably fresh, anyway – it apparently lacks for little. Pretty impressive, you’d have to say, for what is supposedly a ‘customer’ engine, supplied to four teams: whatever else Lotus, Virgin and HRT have been short of in their debut season, it hasn’t been grunt.

Alonso found himself in the unusual position of chasing Hulkenberg because the young German – although swiftly dispensed with by the Red Bulls – had succeeded in putting his Williams on pole, and it was pleasing that this should have occurred at Interlagos, where the team’s last victory – by Juan Pablo Montoya – was scored six long years ago.

nigel newsletter f1  The importance of qualifying

The manner in which Hulkenberg achieved his pole position reminded me rather of qualifying for the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch in 1975, when Jody Scheckter – in freezing conditions – threw his Tyrrell around with such vigour that he alone got decent temperature into his tyres, and achieved a time no one else could approach. In the case of Hulkenberg, a wet Interlagos was drying out by the end of qualifying, and he – one of the first out on slicks – drove as quick an out-lap as he dared, got his tyres up to temperature, and went for it, setting a time more than a second faster even than the Red Bulls.

As we saw so often in the season past, Adrian Newey’s wonder cars duly waltzed it in the race, but Alonso wasn’t very far behind Webber at the flag, and might have been able to exert a little more pressure had he not lost a significant amount of time behind Hulkenberg in the early laps. The importance of qualifying is perhaps even greater today than at any point in the past.
Most would agree, I think, that on many occasions in this era of Formula 1 the highlight of the weekend – in terms of excitement – is Q3, that final 10-minute period when only the 10 fastest cars are out, and the track is relatively uncluttered. Since refuelling was dropped, thank God, so the need to ‘qualify with fuel for the first stint of the race’ has gone with it, and thus the cars are in pure, ultra-light ‘qualifying spec’.

Think of Singapore. Alonso stole that race from the faster Red Bull of Vettel because he drove a perfect qualifying lap, and Sebastian, heading for pole on his final run, lightly clipped a guardrail. That meant starting second, and although he pressured Fernando for the entire race, second was where he finished, too. Saturday, in other words, decided Sunday, and often it has been that way because overtaking, as we know, is extremely difficult with F1 cars of the contemporary era.

The top six drivers in the 2010 World Championship represented three teams. At Red Bull, Vettel out-qualified Webber 12-7, at McLaren Hamilton beat Button 14-5, and at Ferrari Alonso was ahead of Massa 15-4. Ten times Vettel started from pole, followed by Webber (five), Alonso (two) and Hamilton and Hulkenberg (one apiece).

nigel newsletter f1  The importance of qualifying

No wonder the young man looked so gratified in Brazil. It’s a tragedy that financial considerations – Hulkenberg isn’t loaded down with personal sponsorship – have obliged Williams to part with him, but Nico will surely get a drive elsewhere for 2011. Most drivers, after all, go through an entire F1 career without once starting from the front.