Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…: Malaysian GP qualifying

Posted: April 9, 2011 in F1 qualifying, Formula 1
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Either Red Bull weren’t sandbagging or, in a masterpiece of double bluffing, they still are.

Just as in Australia, qualifying posed more questions than it answered.  Just what were McLaren doing all winter?  Was Vettel’s dominance two weeks ago just a one-off?  Has anyone seen Adrian Sutil lately?

Qualifying 1

24 cars filed out of the Sepang pitlane at the start of the qualifying hour.  This week’s twist is that the same 24 cars will start the race, with HRT comfortably beating the 107% time and earning the right to go racing tomorrow.  Narain Karthikeyan made the cut by just under a second while Tonio Liuzzi doubled that safety margin and went quickly enough to worry Virgin Racing, whose car was finished on schedule and had a winter testing programme.  Give Hispania a little while longer and it might turn out that theirs isn’t the slowest car in the field after all.

Lotus lost both cars in the first part of qualifying too but, doubtless spurred on by yesterday’s criticism of their performance on a blog somewhere near here, Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen were within 0.5 seconds of scraping in to Q2 and were by far the most competitive cars among the 2010 intake.  That left one slot left to fill in the drop zone and a host of drivers in danger of filling it.

McLaren, Ferrari and Renault were all safe.  Sauber and Mercedes were both in trouble for a spell but pulled themselves clear, as did Toro Rosso, in spite of the bodywork from Sebastien Buemi’s sidepod flying off unprompted.  Their sister team almost lost a car unexpectedly, with Mark Webber failing to hook up a lap on the hard Pirellis and sinking to 15th place as the session wound down.  Those behind him improved their times but not by quite enough, with Rubens Barrichello just scraping through and condemning his Williams team mate Pastor Maldonado to the trap door.

Qualifying 2

In which we discovered that Mercedes still haven’t unlocked the deepest, darkest secrets of their MGP W02 and dared to hope that the man on pole position might not be a German in a Red Bull.

It could have been an Australian in a Red Bull instead.  Having scraped through Q1, Webber wasn’t about to make the same mistake again and used the soft tyres to bag a slot in the top 10 shootout.  Vettel went through with him, as did Jenson Button in the McLaren, but nobody got there more convincingly than Lewis Hamilton.  From the back end of nowhere to genuine front runners in hardly any more time than you needed to read this sentence, McLaren looked to be well in the hunt for top honours.

Nobody else did, but the intra-team scraps were fascinating.  Having been one-upped by debutant Sergio Perez in Melbourne, Kamui Kobayashi went about regaining the initiative at Sauber with a late burst into the top 10.  Perez bowed out in 16th, bemoaning traffic on his out lap and a lack of grip in the final sector of his flyer.  With Jerome d’Ambrosio and Maldonado having already lost out to more experienced team mates, Paul di Resta upheld rookie honour with a fine run to 13th on the grid, 4 places ahead of Adrian Sutil in the other Force India.  The BBC would have you believe that Sutil didn’t record a lap time.  He did, slowest of the Q2 runners and 0.2 seconds behind the Scotsman.

The most intriguing battle of the lot came at Mercedes, where Michael Schumacher had the legs on Nico Rosberg all through Friday, into Saturday morning, during Q1 and for the first 14 minutes of Q2.  At this stage, both drivers began to experience problems with their DRS, or moveable rear wing, or RFA if you’re a Mercedes employee (DRS is the graphic you’ll see on television, so we’ll run with that for now).  Ross Brawn explains the problem fully at this link right here, but if you’re in a hurry, the key point is that when the Merc drivers stop using DRS and return their rear wing to its normal setting, they don’t always get all of their downforce back and aren’t getting the amount of grip they expect as a result.  This gives Nico and Michael a double helping of trouble, since not only does the car not always react as it should, but they aren’t able to predict with any real accuracy exactly what will happen when they commit to a corner.

Rosberg made it into Q3, where the issue would affect him more severely.  Grappling a rear end that made continued, spirited efforts to overtake the front at every opportunity, Schumacher missed the cut, languishing in 11th place for the second race in succession.

Qualifying 3

Massa, Alonso, Heidfeld, Petrov, Kobayashi and Rosberg were there too, of course, but Q3 was all about the quarrelling quartet at the front.

Everyone else had burned up their tyres to secure a place in the final showdown and had plans for a single run, but Red Bull and McLaren had 2 sets of rubber for each car and the track to themselves in the early running.  After their first runs, barely a quarter of a second separated the top 4, with Button hanging on to the back of Webber while Hamilton put the wind up Vettel by daring to beat him.  1:35.000 was the lap time as Lewis stopped the clocks.  Advantage McLaren.

Webber’s final run produced 1:35.179, cementing  P3 ahead of Button, who couldn’t better 1:35.200.  Behind them, Hamilton was on a personal best lap but Vettel, a few seconds back down the road and last of the top men to start his lap, had shaded the first sector by mere thousandths of a second.  Through the middle part of the lap it was too close to call, Seb breaking the timing beam as Lewis exited the final corner and drove for the line.  1:34.974 for the Briton, a marginal improvement and provisional pole.  All eyes on the reigning champion now, powering down the back straight and begging for all the help his DRS and now-operational KERS power boost could give him.

1:34.870.  Vettel had the perfect response yet again, delivering at the last moment in his customary style, but this one was no formality.  The same should apply tomorrow, with McLaren having seemed to manage their tyre wear slightly better in the relative cool of Australia.  Assuming the race stays dry, which is far from certain, how will they cope in the 30 degree heat of Malaysia?

The Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:34.870
2. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +0.104 seconds
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +0.309 seconds
4. Jenson Button (McLaren), +0.330 seconds
5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +0.932 seconds
6. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1.254 seconds
7. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.381 seconds
8. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +1.454 seconds
9. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.939 seconds
10. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +1.950 seconds

Eliminated in Q2:

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

Eliminated in Q1:

18. Pastor Maldonado (Williams)
19. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
20. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
21. Timo Glock (Virgin)
22. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT)
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT)


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