Formula Renault 3.5 championship leader Robert Wickens remains wary of the threat from title rival Jean-Eric Vergne, despite qualifying eight places ahead of his adversary for Saturday's opening race at the series' championship showdown at Barcelona.
Vergne is the only other driver in contention for the championship. A superb run of races by the 2010 British Formula 3 champion has reduced a 34-point deficit to Wickens in August to just two points entering the Barcelona final. A potential maximum score of 50 points is on offer this weekend.
"It was definitely the first time that I have had a qualifying session where you get out of the car for half-an-hour and then come back and go again," said Wickens, referring to the session over-running by 40 minutes following a heavy accident by Draco's Adrien Tambay and Gravity-Charouz racer Brendon Hartley depositing oil on the circuit.
"From my side the car was just phenomenal. We made some changes to the car overnight, after some minor issues that I had, and literally every change was exactly what I needed. It was just amazing."
Wickens' pole lap was set prior to the oil spill, but the 22-year-old felt that a faster time had been attainable.
"I did a great lap on my first lap, and was bettering that when the red flag came out for Hartley's thing. Even on the second set, I was able to improve my first two sectors and then I actually made a mistake in a corner where there wasn't any oil down! That lap was a 1m32.6s. I haven't seen the data so I don't know how much time I lost, but I could potentially have matched my time, or bettered it, as I was three tenths off in the last sector."
Vergne, who reported no major issues when he returned to the pits, has scored five victories this season to Wickens' four, and is held in high regard by his rival.
"From my side I understood that JEV was going to be a strong competitor, he always is, but I honestly wasn't expecting him to qualify ninth," said Wickens. "So I don't think the session could have gone better in terms of the overall outcome.
"I was trying to do the best job that I can, and whatever happens, happens. There is a mathematical chance that I could win the championship this afternoon if JEV doesn't score points. But I know JEV is a good racer and he is going to make my life as difficult as possible. It's going to be an exciting afternoon."
Tyre wear was a factor for several drivers in the cooler conditions of Friday's collective tests, but Wickens is cautiously optimistic that it will not be an issue in today's LAC (low-aerodynamic configuration) race.
"Yesterday was chilly, and a lot of people were struggling with graining. Luckily we weren't, but I guess we'll wait and see. I am usually quite good on the tires, I don't usually push them that hard. I showed that at Silverstone where you need to make sure you have tires when you need it."
Albert Costa and Alexander Rossi will start behind the Marussia-backed driver. The pair are embroiled in their own battle for third in the drivers' standings, leaving polesitter Wickens to prioritize staying ahead at Turn 1.
"Judging from our free practice pace, and if I can get off the line well, then we have a strong chance to score some very good points," he said. "From my side I just need to get a good start and lead. The best way to stay out of trouble is to be ahead of it. That is going to be my strategy for the afternoon."