Sepang - South Africa's "Vulindlela" with Stephen Simpson at the wheel qualified 13th out of 24 for the fifth round of the A1 Grand Prix of Nations series in Malaysia on Saturday afternoon.
The 21-year-old winner of the 2000 South African Formula Ford championship finished 3,15 sec behind first-time pole position winner Switzerland (Neel Jani), but it might have been a different story had the second, third and fourth qualifying segments not been affected by rain.
Simpson and Vulindlela had a good run in the opening qualifying session, recording their best time of the weekend so far and finishing just 0,99 sec behind Switzerland's Neel Jani, who set the fastest time of 1 min 54,44 sec. This placed South Africa 14th overall in one of the most closely contested qualifying sessions since the start of the A1GP series, with the first 14 cars covered by a single second.
Rain started falling five minutes into the second session and only six or seven nations were able to complete a dry flying lap. Sadly South Africa was not one of them and Simpson had to complete his single flying lap on a circuit that was two thirds wet and one third dry. He did well to record a time of 1 min 56,68 sec under these tricky conditions ("the car aquaplaned a little on the main straight at the end of the lap," Simpson said), 2,16 sec behind Jani in the Swiss car, who was again quickest.
Only three drivers braved the soaking conditions that prevailed throughout the third session, while the rest of the field waited hopefully for the rain to stop. It didn't and the full field of 24 cars duly took to the wet track on wet weather tyres for the fourth and final session.
The drivers who had been quickest in the dry turned out to be the quickest in the wet and the times recorded in both the third and fourth sessions had no bearing on the final grid positions.
France (Alexandre Premat) will start alongside Switzerland on the front row of the grid for tomorrow's short sprint race, with Ireland (third) and Great Britain (4th) sharing the second row, New Zealand and the Netherlands on the third row, Malaysia and Brazil on the fourth row, and Portugal and Italy making up the top 10.
"A top 10 grid position was definitely on the cards," said Simpson, "but the rain put paid to that. Before we could get out of the pit for the second session of qualifying (which turned out to be the most crucial one) the pit lane was packed with eager starters and we were forced to follow them out. We'd fitted a set of new tyres to Vulindlela (as we did for the first session) and I was confident I could return a good enough aggregate time for the two laps.
"That said, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's races. We have a very good car, I enjoy the circuit - which offers lots of opportunities to the smooth, clean and bold driver - and if I can avoid over-eager passers and cars stranded in corners ahead of me (as I was unable to do in Australia!), we'll give our South Africa supporters and fans back home a good result."