Ferrari and McLaren were left with egg on their faces after totally misjudging the weather conditions in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Their four drivers will start from the back of the grid after their teams held them back at the start of a rain soaked first part of qualifying.
They presented an open goal to their title rivals Red Bull and Mercedes, who took full advantage.
Mark Webber was the only driver to gamble on intermediate tyres in the final session and took pole by a big margin, with team mate Vettel third. Nico Rosberg did a great job to take second, his first front row start and a full second ahead of his rain master team mate Schumacher who starts 8th.
The session was full of drama. The track was damp at the start of Q1, but there was more rainfall during the session. So it was important to be out on track at the right time.
While Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel got on with it early on, both Ferrari drivers, both McLarens and Mercedes stayed in the garage. Unfortunately for them the track was its fastest in the first 10 minutes and the rain began falling more heavily as those cars went out on track.
Button and Schumacher were the first of those cars on track and just managed to get in, but Button subsequently aquaplaned off the track having set 13th fastest time at that point, meanwhile Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were forced to go for full wet tyres in an attempt to get into the game. They failed, Alonso having a lurid triple spin.
It was extraordinary that the leading teams should have misread the weather situation so badly, especially as the rain had been falling pretty consistently at that time of day all week.
“We got it wrong, we thought that first rainstorm was it, ” said Button. “I aquaplaned off and got stuck in the gravel. Very disappointing, strange session with both Ferraris and both McLarens off. I’m in front of three of my championship rivals, but behind others.”
The top teams’ misfortunes were good news for Virgin Racing and Lotus, who both got a car through to Q2. Kovalainen qualified 15th, with Glock 16th.
The second session challenged the drivers’ and teams’ tactical acumen. It started on a damp track but with rain forecast five minutes in. Most runners took a second set of intermediates, Red Bull went for full wets.
The Renault was handy in these conditions, with Kubica fastest in Q1 and second in Q2 as was Adrian Sutil in the Force India. Sebastian Vettel judged it perfectly and was fastest in Q2. The rain held off until two minutes before the end and the track was at its fastest in the few minutes before that. It was a question of being out there on the intermediate tyres with fuel in the car at the right moment.
Both Williams drivers made it through to the top ten shootout as did both Force India cars.
The decisive final part of qualifying was held in traditional Malaysian monsoon conditions. Robert Kubica cheekily drove around the queue of cars in the pitlane to get out on track first. But the session was stopped after three minutes before any of the cars had managed a lap.
At the restart, with seven minutes left on the clock, most drivers went for full wet tyres, Webber went for the intermediate. Initially it looked like the wrong choice, but on his second flying lap he took provisional pole and then found another 1.1 secs on his third lap.
Team principal Christian Horner confirmed that the decision to take the inters was Webber’s own.
Adrian Sutil qualified fourth and Nico Hulkenberg an impressive fifth.
MALAYSIAN GP QUALIFYING
1. Webber Red Bull-Renault 1:51.886 1:48.210 1:49.327
2. Rosberg Mercedes 1:52.560 1:47.417 1:50.673
3. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1:47.632 1:46.828 1:50.789
4. Sutil Force India-Mercedes 1:49.479 1:47.085 1:50.914
5. Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1:49.664 1:47.346 1:51.001
6. Kubica Renault 1:46.283 1:46.951 1:51.051
7. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 1:50.301 1:48.371 1:51.511
8. Schumacher Mercedes 1:52.239 1:48.400 1:51.717
9. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1:48.467 1:47.792 1:51.767
10. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1:49.922 1:48.238 1:52.254
11. Petrov Renault 1:47.952 1:48.760
12. de la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari 1:47.153 1:48.771
13. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.945 1:49.207
14. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1:48.655 1:49.464
15. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.875 1:52.270
16. Glock Virgin-Cosworth 1:52.398 1:52.520
17. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1:52.211
18. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1:52.884
19. Alonso Ferrari 1:53.044
20. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes 1:53.050
21. Massa Ferrari 1:53.283
22. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth 1:56.299
23. Senna HRT-Cosworth 1:57.269
24. di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1:59.977