Red Bull gives you wings, a turbo and some rocket fuel: Oz GP qualifying

Posted: March 26, 2011 in F1 qualifying, Formula 1
Tags: , , , , , ,

‘Ominous’ is the word you’re after.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.  At the start of the qualifying hour, everyone knew Red Bull had the legs on the rest of the field.  Nobody knew by exactly how much, nor over exactly who.  Qualifying would go some way to answering those questions, serving up several more posers along the way.

Qualifying 1

All 24 cars joined the Albert Park circuit for the first part of today’s qualifying session, including a pair of HRT machines.  Narain Karthikeyan had managed 5 very steady laps in the morning session, this being 5 more than Tonio Liuzzi, whose car decided its life’s work was done after about 600 yards.  Under the circumstances, neither man had a prayer of meeting the 107% time, Liuzzi falling short by 1.7 seconds and Karthikeyan by 3.  The drivers, for whom we should have considerable sympathy, did well to go so quickly in what was essentially a series of systems checks, the same kind of reliability tests everyone else carried out 2 months ago.  If every other team agrees to it, they can still start tomorrow’s race, but the odds of every other team authorising the presence of a twin rolling roadblock are long.

Further down the pitlane among those who are properly equipped for this F1 business, Red Bull and McLaren set the pace in the early going.  Both teams felt they had enough pace to ignore the softer tyre, reckoned to be around a second per lap quicker than the hard compound this weekend.  Both teams were right.  Tellingly, none of the other predicted front-runners believed they had the same comfort zone.

With HRT out of the running, Virgin not that much further ahead and Lotus failing to bridge the gap between themselves and the more established outfits, 6 of the 7 drop-outs were already locked in.  The scramble to avoid being contestant number 7 was frantic.  At Mercedes, Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg both ran the soft tyre and both made it into Q2, though neither man set the timing sheets alight.  F1 debutants Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez and Pastor Maldonado were all in the drop zone for a spell but all made it through, Perez showing a particularly impressive turn of speed in the Sauber.  With time running out, the two men in danger were a pair of veterans in quick cars who should probably know better, Felipe Massa and Nick Heidfeld.

Massa went for two quick laps on the softer tyre, made an unholy mess of the first attempt but put together a solid second circuit.  Heidfeld, on a lap that might just have been enough, reached the exit of turn 13 just in time to be baulked by Jerome d’Ambrosio and Narain Karthikeyan, the Indian doing his best to get out of the HRT alive.  With no choice but to lift off the throttle, Quick Nick fell by the wayside.

Qualifying 2

With the top two teams looking secure, Q2 would see the other 13 cars battling for the right to drive around making noise while Red Bull and McLaren disputed pole position in Q3.  The midfield battle in 2011 looks set to be as closely contested as ever, so perhaps the tension was just too much for Rubens Barrichello.  Entering turn 3 on his first hot lap, the Williams came into view facing the wrong way.  The Brazilian, gearing up for his 307th Formula 1 race weekend, dropped both his left wheels onto the grass verge as he hit the brakes, spinning into the gravel after a mistake he later described as ‘silly’.

Ferrari have recently hired a former commander of the Frecce Tricolori, Italy’s national aerobatic demonstration team, as part of a drive to improve their organisation and communication skills.  Perhaps in his spare time, he’s found a few moments to teach Adrian Sutil the art of the smoky loop-the-loop.  Sutil lost control coming off the final corner, appearing to destabilise his Force India by activating his moveable rear wing while bouncing over a kerb.  The car spun towards the pit wall and looked for all the world like it was about to disassemble itself against the concrete, Sutil burying the throttle to somehow pull everything back into line.  The German’s machine remained intact, though his qualifying session was in tatters.

Slips from their experienced team mates meant that Maldonado and di Resta would both start their maiden Grands Prix as their team’s leading representative.  Di Resta’s 14th place is in line with where Force India have been all winter, unlike Maldonado’s P15 in a Williams which will surely deliver more as the season unfolds.  Joining them in the Q2 drop zone was Perez, unable to deliver a second run to match his great effort in the first session.  The Sauber looks to be a fundamentally quick car, a fact underlined by Kamui Kobayashi’s lairy, sideways, largely unhinged progression into Q3.

That progress came at the expense of Jaime Alguersuari, who is rapidly turning the act of qualifying about 12th into an artform, and Michael Schumacher.  Schumi reported that his KERS power boost would only work intermittently but would still have made it through had it not been for a tail-out wobble into the quick Turn 11/12 chicane.

Qualifying 3

Then Sebastian Vettel started trying, The End.

Having circulated happily in the 1:24-1:25 region throughout qualifying, the reigning world champion bolted a fresh set of soft tyres on for Q3 and unleashed a 1:23.529 on his first run.  As everyone else scrambled to get within a second of that, Vettel offered up a 1:23.60 just to show there’d been no fluke.  Nobody, not even the chap in the other Red Bull, had the answer.

That chap was Mark Webber, seeking to break a home jinx extending back to 2002.  Then, Webbo took 5th place on his F1 debut at the wheel of the struggling, underfinanced Minardi on a day when only 7 men saw the chequered flag.  Today he qualified 3rd, some 0.866 seconds behind his team mate and openly admitting that Seb’s pace was too much to live with.

The Red Bulls were split by the improbably rapid Lewis Hamilton, for whom 2nd on the grid after such a torrid winter must feel like deliverance.  The car is much improved over the one that ran in testing; if the team can find so much pace through bolting on an exhaust and a floor which have never appeared before, just how bad were the originals?  2nd on the grid is still 0.778 seconds away from being 1st, which is a couple of blinks to a regular human being but a lifetime in F1 terms, but it’s no less encouraging for that.  Hamilton’s KERS power boost was broken too, which won’t have helped, but then again – and this should induce still greater fear in his pursuers – Vettel didn’t even try to use his.  In the other McLaren, Jenson Button took 4th.  His KERS was fine but his tyres were too cold, the result of a squabble with Rosberg over track position which the Englishman lost.

Behind them, Fernando Alonso took 5th.  The Ferrari everyone expected to be right in there with Red Bull was 1.445 seconds behind.  Vitaly Petrov achieved a rare double, managing to simultaneously drive the Renault quickly and avoid crashing into anything on his way to an impressive 6th.

On a bad day for very experienced Brazilian racing drivers, Felipe Massa managed to throw his Ferrari at the scenery on his way out of the pit lane.  Having driven onto the circuit without any particular drama, Massa clipped a kerb on the first corner of his out lap and performed a 180-degree pirouette off the back foot.  Unlike his countryman, Felipe would continue, claiming an eventual 8th place behind Nico Rosberg.  Rounding out the top 10 were Kobayashi and Sebastien Buemi, whose Q3 run was the dictionary definition of the word ‘steady’.

The Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:23.529
2. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +0.778 seconds
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +0.866 seconds
4. Jenson Button (McLaren), +1.250 seconds
5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +1.445 seconds
6. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +1.718 seconds
7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.892 seconds
8. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +2.070 seconds
9. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +2.097 seconds
10. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +3.537 seconds

Eliminated in Q2:

11. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes)
12. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
13. Sergio Perez (Sauber)
14. Paul di Resta (Force India)
15. Pastor Maldonado (Williams)
16. Adrian Sutil (Force India)
17. Rubens Barrichello (Williams)

Eliminated in Q1:

18. Nick Heidfeld (Renault)
19. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
20. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
21. Timo Glock (Virgin)
22. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT, outside 107%)
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT, outside 107%)

Tomorrow’s outcome remains up in the air, with the world waiting to see exactly how Pirelli tyres, power boosts and overtaking zones affect the on-track action.  Such unpredictability is always exciting.  In this case, it’s crucial.  Without it, Sebastian Vettel would already have the Australian Grand Prix buried in his pocket.

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