SILVERSTONE, England (Reuters) - Spaniard Fernando Alonso slid and splashed through atrocious conditions to hand Ferrari their first Formula One pole since 2010 in a rain-delayed British Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday.
The championship leader, last year’s winner at Silverstone, was joined on the front row by Red Bull’s Australian Mark Webber - also his closest rival in the standings after eight of 20 races.
The pole was Ferrari’s first since Alonso started the Singapore Grand Prix from the top slot on the grid in September 2010, 31 races ago.
“It was tricky conditions for everyone. You have to be calm in some difficult moments,” said the Spaniard, who leads Webber by 20 points overall, of his 21st career pole.
The double champion batted away fears that he had set his fastest lap in the interrupted second phase of qualifying under yellow warning flags after Frenchman Romain Grosjean got his Lotus stuck in the gravel.
“I backed off in the area where they were taking away the car,” Alonso said of the incident.
Seven times world champion Michael Schumacher qualified third fastest for Mercedes, despite having the wrong visor on at one point and seeing very little, with fellow German Sebastian Vettel, the reigning champion, alongside for Red Bull.
The top four, separated by just four tenths of a second, are all former British Grand Prix winners.
“In a session like this it’s a huge amount down to the driver to get comfortable in the car. It was nip and tuck with Fernando to get pole,” said Webber who seized it last year.
Vettel said the conditions made the race anyone’s guess, with a safety car intervention likely.
“It could be pretty messy tomorrow,” said the 25-year-old. “Someone starting 18th could win the race.”
Heavy rain had earlier forced qualifying to be halted for an hour and a half, with cars slipping and sliding on pools of standing water.
Alonso, who narrowly missed spinning into the wall, had been among those calling for race control to abandon the session.
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, the last Briton to win his home race in 2008, qualified eighth after nearly hitting a Sauber lurking in the spray ahead of him during the second phase when the rain was heaviest.
”The spray here is incredible,“ said Hamilton. ”I‘m not sure why it’s more here than it is maybe in other places. You can’t see a thing...I was behind quite a few cars and down towards Copse (corner) you don’t know whether to stay flat out or not.
“You can’t see the car even five meters in front of you.”
Team mate Jenson Button, who has never finished on the podium at Silverstone, had a nightmare afternoon and should start 16th after grid penalties are applied to others.
His chance of a fast lap was wrecked at the end of the first part of qualifying when Marussia’s Timo Glock spun on the finish line and yellow warning flags forced Button to back off when he might have gone fast enough to go through.
“It is the story of my year, not getting heat on the front (tires) so I am not too upset. I know I can drive a car in the wet,” said the Briton, a winner in the wet from last place at a restart in Canada last year.
Brazilian Felipe Massa put his Ferrari in fifth place on the grid, his best performance of the season, next to his former team mate and 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen in a Lotus.
Rain also caused chaos on Friday, with teams getting limited practice laps in very slippery conditions while waterlogged campsites caused huge traffic jams outside the circuit as race fans struggled to find parking.
Organisers had urged up to 30,000 ticket-holders with public parking passes to stay away on Saturday to ensure car parks held up for an expected 125,000-strong crowd on race day. They said all were welcome on Sunday.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ken Ferris