Eight underdogs that stunned Formula One with their shock pole positions

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Formula One has a knack for providing us with a feel-good moments from time to time. One of the most exciting parts of watching F1 is when an underdog takes the pole position.

The front rows of the grid are typically occupied by the quickest drivers in the best cars. Occasionally, however, especially in wet conditions, the other drivers get the chance to show their abilities and they can pull up a surprise by putting their car at the very front and maybe, go on to win the race.

As another Formula One shock transpired at Interlagos on Friday, here is a look at some of the most shocking pole positions in recent history.

Surprise pole-sitters in recent history

Sebastian Vettel (Toro Rosso) – Italy 2008

At Monza in 2008, torrential downpour leveled the playing field and gave one of the sport’s legends a chance to showcase his skills up front for the first time.

In his midfield Toro Rosso, Sebastian Vettel qualified third in Q1 and then topped the timesheets in O2 and O3 to claim a stunning first pole position ahead of Heikki Kovalainen of McLaren and nearly six tenths clear of Senior Red Bull driver Mark Webber in third. Vettel then drove a brilliant race to win his first Grand Prix.

In normal conditions, Vettel would not be in a position to compete at the front the way he did. But we must not forget we are not discussing an average F1 driver. He went on to win 53 races after that, and it didn’t take long for his reputation to go from underdog status to a legendary one.

Giancarlo Fisichella (Force India) – Belgium 2009

Giancarlo Fisichella had experienced success in Formula One, but in the latter parts of his career, his move to Force India saw him compete at the back of the pack in 2009.

Teammate Adrian Sutil was unable to get into Q3, but “Fisi,” who had not scored a point up until that point in the season, showed guile and poise to clinch a brilliant pole position in dry conditions ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, the fourth pole of his career.

The Finn overtook him to win the race, but Fisichella, who finished in second place, was promoted to Ferrari for the latter stages of the season to replace the underperforming Luca Badoer alongside Raikkonen—with Felipe Massa out due to his unexpected accident in Hungary.

His tenure with Ferrari eventually marked the end of his Formula One career and driving for Italy’s national team as an Italian is certainly not a bad way to bow out of the sport.

Nico Hulkenberg (Williams) – Brazil 2010

In his first F1 season, a young Nico Hulkenberg demonstrated the guts and skills required to conquer a drying Interlagos circuit.

Qualifying began in wet conditions but by the time Q3 rolled around, slick tyres became the go-to choice. At that moment, Hulkenberg, driving a Williams that had mostly been battling for small positions throughout the season, came to life.

The young German driver absolutely crushed the opposition with a pole lap that was a full second clear of the rest and remains to this day his first and only Formula 1 pole position.

Hulkenberg struggled to maintain his impressive position as dry conditions returned for the race, but his P8 finish must not overshadow his magnificent lap in qualifying.

Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) – China 2012

Given Mercedes’ dominance in the sport since the start of the turbo hybrid era, it almost seems odd to include them on this list, but Nico Rosberg’s first pole position really was out of the blue.

Rosberg finished 12th and 13th in the opening two rounds of the season as teammate Schumacher just managed to earn a single point. The Mercedes looked well out of reach of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, and Lotus ahead of them.

Therefore, it came as a shock to the rest of the field when Rosberg and Schumacher arrived in Shanghai with a much quicker car.

With their newfound improvement in pace, the Silver Arrows locked out the front row as Lewis Hamilton got a five-place grid penalty. Rosberg clocked in a brilliant lap that was half a second faster than the rest of the grid.

The German witnessed a pivotal moment in his Formula One career, and although though Mercedes ultimately finished a dismal fifth in the Constructors’ standings that year, Rosberg’s one-off pole position and victory in China ended up being a real glimpse of things to come.

Pastor Maldonado (Williams) – Spain 2012

This is not Williams’ first entry on our list, nor is it the first mention of the 2012 campaign, which produced seven different victors in the opening seven races.

Among them was Pastor Maldonado, and although he had developed a reputation for being difficult to race against in wheel-to-wheel situations during his F1 career, his driving in Barcelona that weekend simply stood out.

It must be mentioned that Maldonado wasn’t the quickest man in qualifying as Lewis Hamilton actually went fastest in Q3 – but due to lack of fuel he was penalized and the Williams was bumped up to pole position.

However, he remained in control of the race from lap 1 and kept the likes of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen at bay as he secured his first and only F1 victory under unexpected circumstances.

That race was Williams’ last race win to date, and the team had to extinguish a fire in their garage post the race on what was an emotion-packed day for the team.

Lance Stroll (Racing Point) – Turkey 2020

F1’s return of the iconic Istanbul park was remarkable to say the least, as the track was newly resurfaced and seemed like an ice rink for the drivers.

Slippery conditions greeted the drivers across all of qualifying, and while the track got better as the session went on, it was Racing Point’s Lance Stroll who took full advantage of the circumstances in Q3 and stunned the field to clinch his first pole position. Stroll cried out on the team radio, “I love my job!” when his pole position was confirmed.

Unfortunately, the Canadian’s race did not go as he might have anticipated. He held the lead for the majority of the first part of the race as the track dried. Some drivers stayed out on old Inters and Stroll wanted to do the same but he was brought in for a stop by the team.

After a very strong qualifying session, Stroll eventually ended a dismal P9 due to damage to his front wing.

Ahead of him, Lewis Hamilton took the chequered flag at the front to become just the second driver in history to achieve seven World Titles.

Lando Norris (McLaren) – Russia 2021

In slippery conditions at Sochi, Lando Norris took his chances in mixed conditions as he grabbed his first-ever pole position in Formula One with his papaya McLaren.

Norris and his close friend and former colleague Carlos Sainz locked the front row in damp conditions. George Russell, in his backmarker Williams, also did a stellar lap to put his car in third place.

Norris was so confident in the wet conditions that he not only qualified Sainz by half a second, he was two seconds quicker than Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes, who lined up fourth, in a McLaren that wasn’t expected to be near the front of the field.

It was a superb display of wet-weather skills by the Briton on Saturday but his race ended in a heart-breaking fashion as he chose not to put on the Intermediate tyres when the rain started to fall late in the race. Hamilton stopped for intermediate tyres as Norris gambled and decided to continue out on slicks.

It ultimately turned out to be a big mistake as the rain intensified and Norris slid off the track and lost the lead, eventually finishing down in seventh.

Kevin Magnussen (Haas) – Brazil 2022

The most recent example on this list and maybe the biggest shock of them all.

Magnussen became the latest driver to take pole position in F1 with a great lap in Q3 at Interlagos when heavens opened up in the latter parts of qualifying.

His reaction of “you’re f****** kidding me” when notified of the revelation was an indication of how little he had anticipated the news himself. As the rain increased, George Russell beached his Mercedes and brought out the red flag which meant that no one will be able to improve their times.

Haas have spent the majority of the last three seasons at the back of the pack, and the team is still fighting for a paltry P8 in the Constructors’ Championship. But that must not take anything away from Kevin Magnussen who progressed into Q3 in mixed conditions with a solid performance on its own merit, then put in a great lap to beat Max Verstappen to P1 in qualifying.

K-Mag earned his and the team’s first pole In electrifying conditions one day ahead team owner Gene Haas’ 70th birthday In electrifying conditions — one day ahead team owner Gene Haas’ 70th birthday. And Haas could not have given him a better birthday gift.

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