BARCELONA // Lewis Hamilton delivered a devastating fastest qualifying lap to secure his McLaren-Mercedes team a 150th Formula One pole position for today's Spanish Grand Prix. Yet it would not have been in keeping with this enthrallingly unpredictable season were the story to end there.
The Briton finished more than half a second quicker than second-placed Pastor Maldonado. Yet it is the Williams driver who will start from pole for the first time after Hamilton, who was ordered by his team to stop his car during his slow-down lap, was relegated to the back of the grid after being deemed to have broken the governing body's regulations.
Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, had said the car was stopped prematurely due to "a technical problem". Sam Michael, McLaren's sporting director, when called in front of the race stewards, explained the car stopped "for reasons of force majeure".
The FIA, however, found their was insufficient fuel in the car for it to return to the pits under its own power and "as the amount of fuel put into the car is under the complete control of the competitor, the stewards cannot accept this as a case of force majeure," read the governing body's statement.
A McLaren spokesman said: "We accept that the stewards did not agree with our interpretation of force majeure. Our aim is now to maximise the points we can score [today]."
Hamilton will now start this today's race from 24th position.
The decision means Maldonado, the 27 year old in only his second season in the sport, will start on pole for Williams, who were in celebratory mood even before the FIA's statement. Not only did yesterday mark the first time the storied English marque have started on the front row since the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix, it coincided with a surprise 70th birthday party for the team's owner Sir Frank Williams.
The Venezuelan has been labelled a pay driver, a criticism not helped by leaked documents appearing to show Maldonado's sponsors bring $46 million (Dh168.9m) to the Williams team.
When asked if yesterday's performance goes some way in proving his talent, he replied: "I'm lucky to have not only a sponsor behind me, but also a country behind me, pushing me so hard. Here I am, doing my job, doing my best, trying to improve every time. I have a mission, which is to be back with Williams to the top, so here we are."
Third-placed Fernando Alonso will move up to the front row, confirming this world championship season's mantra is "expect the unexpected".
The Ferrari driver all but ruled out his chances of success at the start of the week, yet in a year that has thrown up four different winners in four different cars during its opening four races, nothing can be ruled out anymore.
"For us, it was impossible to even dream about being in the top three in the first four races, so definitely it's a step forward," Alonso said. "[But] I don't think there is much more to come. I could put 100 more sets of tyres on and I could only repeat the lap time probably. It is the way it is. I'm extremely happy and hopefully we can capitalise on this good starting position with a good result."
Courtesy of the stewards' decision, the Spaniard has already gained one position and his home race has yet to even begin.