MELBOURNE // A persistently treacherous downpour Down Under saw qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix postponed until the early hours of this morning.
The result is the grid will be decided on the same day as the race for only the third time in a decade, while a Formula One season will start clouded in uncertainty like never before.
After three months of conjecture, yesterday's planned hour-long qualifying was due to pull the cover off the paddock's pecking order.
Instead, following a heavily-disrupted 20 minutes of on-track action and with darkness approaching, race officials suspended the session and announced it would reconvene at 11am local time (4am UAE).
Consequently, this morning, just six hours before the first grand prix of a 19-race season, the majority of teams and drivers will arrive at Albert Park with no idea where they are likely to start the race and little chance of completing the necessary set-up work to improve their lot post-qualifying.
With torrential rain pounding the circuit, yesterday's session had already been delayed 30 minutes when it finally got underway at 5.30pm, producing a chaotic crash-fest that saw Ferrari's Felipe Massa, both Caterham drivers and Esteban Gutierrez of Sauber all suffer broken front wings after spinning off at speed. Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, Sergio Perez in his McLaren-Mercedes and Mark Webber of Red Bull Racing also all found their hearts in their mouths, aquaplaning towards barrier walls before slowing to a halt before impact.
When the first of the three planned sessions ended, four of the five debutants were eliminated along with Pastor Maldonado of Williams, who surprising finished below his rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes set the pace ahead of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean of Lotus, but with some drivers using different tyres little can be read into the results.
"Twenty minutes of fun" was how McLaren's Jenson Button described the opening exchanges, but even he - renowned as an expert in the rain - acknowledged postponement was the only sensible decision when the conditions worsened. The FIA waited an hour before making the final call.
"When it gets this wet, you will aquaplane, there is no doubt about it," the 33-year-old Englishman said.
"When there is a river running across the circuit and you don't know where it is, it's just like one big lake. When you hit a river, you are out of control. You might as well close your eyes and take your hands off the steering wheel because the car does what it wants. And that is not what F1 racing is about."
Spectators, drenched and dispirited, argued race officials are becoming too quick to pull the plug on the show. Button, however, eloquently explained the governing body's reasoning.
"Formula One is about a guy trying to tame a 750 horsepower car - but in conditions where he can possibly tame it," the 2009 world champion said.
"In these conditions you can't. We are not in control of the situation. You can say 30 years ago, they would have raced in these kind of conditions, but safety has come a long way since then and I'm thankful for that.
"Many times we have questioned the FIA's decisions, but lately they have been great. This is a correct decision."
Rosberg having finished fastest in Q1 was disappointed the session was postponed, adding a front-row finish was a certainty had it remained damp but driveable. "It's such a pity that the qualifying was stopped because in those conditions I was feeling really good and the car was going well," the German said.
"A front-row grid position was definitely on the cards, so that's a bit disappointing."
Now, in improved and potentially dry conditions, Red Bull, the favourites after a strong Friday practice, will get a second chance to snare pole. Although just how quick they - or any other team - can be, nobody yet knows.
[ @SprtNationalUAE ]