SAO PAULO // There are times when Formula One throws up delicious surprises - and yesterday was one such.
While the eyes of the world focused on the nuances of a fascinating, five-way world championship struggle in the penultimate race of the season ahead of next week's Abu Dhabi finale, Nico Hulkenberg, the German rookie, stole in on the blind side to take the first pole position of his F1 career - and Williams-Cosworth's first for more than five years.
Qualifying started on a wet track but conditions gradually improved. Drivers began the final part of the session on intermediate tyres, but with five minutes to go Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes) was first to commit to slick tyres - and everyone else immediately followed suit.
Hulkenberg was quick in the wet, but in drying conditions his Williams was untouchable and his 1min 14.470secs lap put him more than a second clear of Red Bull-Renault teammates and championship rivals Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
Hamilton was fourth, with Fernando Alonso, the championship leader, having to settle for fifth place in his Ferrari.
Jenson Button, the world champion, could qualify only 11th in his McLaren, and his reign at the top looks likely to end today; he goes into the race trailing Alonso by 42 points.
But the championship battle was put to one side briefly yesterday as all eyes were on Hulkenberg.
"When I first saw the times I thought I'd missed pole by a 10th," Vettel said. "Then I realised Nico was in the 1m 14s rather than the 1m 15s."
Hulkenberg, 23, won the prestigious GP2 Series last season and has created a favourable impression since graduating to F1. He has been a match for experienced teammate Rubens Barrichello since the middle of the season, but in recent weeks his future with Williams has been questioned due to the team's lack of finances.
"I can't believe I've done it," said Hulkenberg, who is 15th in the championship. "I tried to squeeze as much out of the car as I could, but conditions were tricky because parts of the circuit were still very wet. I just did the best I could to avoid the damp patches. This is a very emotional moment and I can't really find the words to describe it. I'm still shaking."
His performance was given added lustre in that this is his first race at Interlagos - although he acknowledges it will be difficult to keep the Red Bulls at bay if the track is dry, as forecasts predict for today's race.
"My best option," he said, "would be to make a good start and drive away from these guys, but in the dry I accept that's probably not going to happen. I don't want to get in the way of the title fight, but at the same time I have to look after my own interests."
Webber paid tribute to the job Hulkenberg had done to beat him. "He gave us a bit of a driving lesson," the Australian said.
But he and Vettel know their main task today will be to beat each other and stay ahead of Hamilton and Alonso.
The Red Bull duel has been given added spice in the wake of comments Webber made earlier in the weekend when he implied - not for the first time - that Vettel is the team's "emotional" favourite and that his presence in the title fight has been an "inconvenience".
Despite the constant off-track distractions, Webber, second to Alonso in the points standings, insists he will be racing with a clear mind as he looks to close his 11-point deficit to Alonso.
"Korea apart," Webber said, "I'm very happy with the way I've been driving and that wouldn't have been possible if I wasn't happy with my situation. I'm really pleased with the way things have gone today, because in such difficult conditions it would have been just as easy to qualify 17th."