Archive for the ‘F1 qualifying’ Category

Hark at him, writing something in the same calendar week as a motor race.

The usual folk are at the front of the grid for the Belgian Grand Prix, having done their usual brilliant job of navigating the magnificent ribbon of tarmac at Spa-Francorchamps, as fine a racing circuit as you could ever hope to find.  Let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the drivers  further back in the field, roundly condemning one of them while we’re at it.

On a day when both men had trouble-free runs through qualifying, Jaime Alguersuari outqualified Fernando Alonso.  The odds of the two Spaniards finishing the race in the same order grow more remote the drier it gets (tomorrow is forecast to be completely dry, but Spa is to accurate weather forecasting what McDonalds is to Slimming World), but Jaime should be very, very happy with his afternoon’s work.  Toro Rosso’s updated car appears to be working well, with only a late mistake in Q2 keeping Sebastien Buemi out of the top 10, but 6th on the grid is more than anyone could have expected.

[Correct me if I’m wrong on this, folks: I can only think of one race in which one of STR’s cars has started higher than 6th, the 2008 Italian Grand Prix in which Bourdais started 4th and Vettel won from pole position.  Right or wrong?  Drop me an email or a comment if I’m missing any other instances.  Ta much – Adam]

It took a little misfortune for some of the more fancied runners, in the shape of Schumacher’s detachable rear wheel and di Resta’s team having a late attack of overconfidence, but whenever one of the tail-end teams has the chance to sneak into Q2, it always seems to be Heikki Kovalainen grasping the opportunity.  Watching Heikki trying to break into the lower midfield ranks with Lotus, it’s easy to forget that he spent two seasons as Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren team mate.  It’s also tempting to wonder how many races he might have won had he always drove this well.

Though it still seems a lot like Renault have given the heave-ho to the wrong race driver, Bruno Senna did a fine job today.  Senna would have had every excuse for binning it at some stage of the qualifying hour; there are few greater challenges in motor sport than a half-wet, half-dry Spa in changeable weather, particularly in a car you’re unfamiliar with.  Instead, he’s another member of the Faster Than Fernando club, having also outpaced his new team mate Vitaly Petrov first time out.  It’s still asking a lot to expect a points finish tomorrow, but Bruno did himself no harm at all today with a steady, consistent run.

The same can’t be said for Pastor Maldonado.  It should be pointed out, for the sake of balance, that his victim wasn’t entirely blameless in the clash that marred the end of Q2.  In sneaking up the inside of the Williams at the Bus Stop, Hamilton did absolutely nothing wrong – Pastor had left a gap, appeared to be allowing the McLaren to come past and had no business trying to reclaim the racing line once he’d done so.  There are however ways to register your displeasure, and jinking across the circuit in Maldonado’s direction as the Venezuelan driver came past at the end of the session probably wasn’t the most sensible method Lewis could have chosen.  He put his sudden dart to the right down to wheelspin, the stewards quite correctly felt it had more to do with him steering in that direction and a reprimand seems a reasonable enough punishment.

None of which excuses Maldonado for running the McLaren off the road halfway down a straight.  A Formula 1 car is a finely-tuned racing machine.  It isn’t a battering ram, or indeed a weapon of any kind, and nobody should seek to justify the actions of any racing driver who tries to demonstrate otherwise.  You run so many risks with any kind of accident – driver injury through striking a wall or being hit by debris, the possibility of harm to trackside marshals and spectators, the potentially disastrous consequences of cars locking wheels and becoming airborne – that to cause one deliberately is idiotic in ways beyond words.  That, irrespective of his frankly pathetic attempts to plead ignorance afterwards, is what the Williams driver did.  A 5 place grid penalty is Pastor’s punishment, but it could – should, in fact – have been much, much worse.

For those of you who are into your motor sport history, Maldonado isn’t the first Williams driver to mete out his own brand of justice during a qualifying session.  After being baulked by the Tyrrell of Julian Bailey at Jerez in 1988, Riccardo Patrese did a much, much better job of it, as the first few seconds of this video illustrate:

Who’s on pole?  Gimme an S!  Gimme an E!  Gimme a BASTIAN VETTEL!

The big question, one which we haven’t had to ask at any stage prior to today, is whether he should have been.  For once, being called Sebastian and driving a Red Bull doesn’t appear to be the quickest way to get around a Grand Prix circuit, but a combination of bad luck and bad decisions has left Vettel’s main challenger with an impossible amount of work to do.

The man most likely throughout the early stages of qualifying was Lewis Hamilton, wringing his McLaren’s neck on a circuit he loves.  Throughout Q1 and Q2 the McLarens were at the top of the timesheets, with Jenson Button looking a solid three tenths slower than his team mate but well up in the overall classification.  When Vettel came to show his hand in the final moments of Q2, his best lap on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres was good but not quite good enough.  0.002 seconds separated Hamilton and Vettel, setting the stage for a battle royal in Q3.

What followed was something of an anti-climax, particularly if you’re a fan of Stevenage’s finest.  While every other major player set his wagons rolling in the opening seconds of the session, McLaren elected to keep Hamilton in the garage and go for a single quick run in the final minutes.  While he was there, a hexagonal nail-biter played itself out on track, with Vettel, Button, Webber, Alonso, Schumacher and Massa recording lap times.  The quick six couldn’t possibly have known it, but they’d already bought themselves the best seats in the house for the opening lap of the race.

When Lewis took to the track, he was hampered first by catching Massa at an unfortunate moment, then by Sergio Perez going straight across the chicane after the tunnel rather than around it.  It was a big shunt from which the Mexican seems to have emerged intact, as detailed below, and the session had to be stopped while the stricken Sauber was attended to.  Upon qualifying’s resumption, the track surface appeared to have given up grip, to the dismay of all in attendance but particularly Hamilton.  His best effort was good for no more than 7th, which became 9th when he was adjudged to have jumped the chicane during his flying lap.

It’s not known exactly how hard he laughed at this, but Lewis is well aware that he was not the architect of his own downfall.  At Monaco, you simply cannot afford to sit and watch while your major rivals are on track posting quick times.  Saving tyres for the race is a laudable aim but it’s madness on the streets of Monte Carlo, where one false move from another driver could completely destroy your only meaningful qualifying lap.  So it was for McLaren, now counting the cost of leaving their quickest car parked in the garage.  What makes the decision still more curious is that they’re racing on a track where tyre wear is not a significant factor.

If Lewis Hamilton can’t recover from 9th to win at Monaco, then nobody can.  He can’t, though, so who’s left to challenge Vettel?  Jenson Button starts from the outside of the front row but hasn’t had the legs of Hamilton all weekend.  Despite being the slower of the McLaren duo, he shouldn’t be discounted, being blessed with a sharp tactical mind and remarkable sympathy towards whatever Pirelli provide him with on a given weekend.  We’ve seen Jenson pop up ahead of Lewis on Sunday afternoons already this season, often by choosing to veer off the beaten strategic track, so it’ll be very interesting to see if he has anything for Sebastian over a race distance.

The slower of the Red Bull pairing starts from P3, but unlike the in-house war at Woking, the one at Milton Keynes is fairly clear-cut.  Not only is Mark Webber struggling to extract maximum performance from the RB7, he’s struggling to keep his tyres alive while he’s at it.  Last year he blitzed the field and might have won by a minute or more had the race ran without safety car intervention, but we’ve seen nothing this weekend to suggest that a repeat performance might be on the cards.

What of the Mercedes duo?  Michael Schumacher was a joy to watch throughout qualifying, dispelling any lingering doubts about his commitment in a series of tail-out slides through the swimming pool section. He lines up 5th, equalling his best qualifying position since his comeback.  With Schumi, a dynamic opening lap now comes as standard, but the track is too narrow to make much headway in the early stages.  On a wider circuit and on his usual form, he’d stand a chance of not only leading this race, but of leading the next race in Canada at the same time.  As it is, Michael has a couple of potentially quicker cars behind him and might not be too upset to finish in the middle of the top 10 tomorrow.  One of those potentially faster cars belongs to Nico Rosberg, who has had a slight edge all weekend but didn’t deliver the goods in Q3.

The Ferrari pairing continued their year-long battle with their worst enemy, the 150th Italia’s own front end.  Alonso and Massa are right up on the wheel of their cars this weekend and on Thursday, it looked like Fernando might be the man to beat.  On Saturday, he found his car loaded with the standard amount of understeer and couldn’t better P4, from which he might still be able to do some damage.  We’ve already mentioned that it’s going to be much harder for Schumacher to pull off another first turn shuffle, so it’s also unlikely that Alonso will be able to barge his way to the front using nothing but his own sheer brilliance as he did last week.  What if he did, though?

What we’ve seen so far this season is that Pirelli’s tyres hang together for a fairly low number of laps and then give up all of their performance in one go.  Unlike the refuelling era, when the aim was always to stay out a lap longer than the competition and take advantage of having a lighter car, the key this season is timing your pit stop so that you change tyres just as the performance disappears, thus extracting the absolute maximum from the rubber.  Leaving the pits on new tyres just as your rivals begin to experience problems, you can then get the hammer down and ensure that as the other guy leaves the pits after his stop, he’s staring at the back of your car vanishing into the distance.

We’ve also seen that the race leaders can leave the pits on new tyres and overtake midfield runners on old sets without too much difficulty.  This has removed the need to avoid being held up in traffic when calculating the best time to make a pit stop.  The leaders know they’ve got a speed advantage and they know that a driver on old tyres has little power to defend his position, so it’s not important to exit your pit stop on a completely clear track.  At Monaco, though, if the chap in front doesn’t want you to come past, you don’t come past, irrespective of how quickly he’s going.  For proof, see Nigel Mansell catching Ayrton Senna at an indecent rate after a forced tyre change late in the 1992 race.

If someone like Alonso is able to muscle through to the front, Vettel and company won’t find it quite so easy to overtake through better pit stop timing as they did in Spain last Sunday.  If they try to jump him by pitting early and emerge from the pits behind, say, a Williams or a Force India, they could quite conceivably be stuck in traffic for long enough to give Fernando or Michael or whoever a shot into the clear.  For that reason and that reason alone, it’s not safe to completely rule out a shock result, but realistically?  We’re clutching at straws.  Kinky Kylie has the box seat yet again.

The Grid

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:13.556
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +0.441 seconds
3. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +0.463 seconds
4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +0.927 seconds
5. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +1.126 seconds
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.321 seconds
7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.724 seconds
8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +2.972 seconds
9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), time disallowed for jumping a chicane
10. Sergio Perez (Sauber), no time set due to accident *

Eliminated in Q2

11. Vitaly Petrov (Renault)
12. Rubens Barrichello (Williams)
13. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber)
14. Paul di Resta (Force India)
15. Adrian Sutil (Force India)
16. Nick Heidfeld (Renault)
17. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso)

Eliminated in Q1

18. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
19. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
20. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
21. Timo Glock (Virgin)
22. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT), outside 107%, no time after crash in morning practice **
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), outside 107%, no time after suspension problem found in pits **

*Due to the concussion sustained in his Q3 accident, Sergio Perez will remain in hospital for observation tonight and will not start the 2011 Monaco Grand Prix

**Despite failing to post a qualifying time, both HRT drivers set times during practice which would have put them within 107% of the fastest Q1 lap.  Accordingly, both drivers will be allowed to start tomorrow

Mexican rookie Sergio Perez is reported to be in good condition this evening after a major accident in the final moments of today’s qualifying session for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Exiting the tunnel on his first flying lap of Q3, Perez appeared to be several feet away from the correct racing line as he prepared to brake for the harbour-front chicane.  His Sauber became unstable as it travelled over bumps in the braking zone, veering to the right and striking the Armco barriers.  With its right rear wheel now missing and its driver powerless to regain control, the car travelled across the chicane at high speed before striking the end of another barrier side-on.  The accident came just hours after Nico Rosberg had avoided a head-on impact by inches in the same circumstances.

Though his car has yet to be fully examined, TV footage suggested that the deformable crash structures on the side of Sergio’s car had performed well, protecting the driver from the brunt of the impact.  Mention must also be made of the energy-absorbent TECPRO barriers, which were capable not only of cushioning the blow but of being used again without the need for replacement when qualifying resumed.

In a statement, the Sauber team said, “The 21-year-old Mexican was taken to the Hospital Princess Grace in Monaco from where the team received further information at 16:25 hrs.  The doctors said Perez had suffered concussion and a sprained thigh, but no broken bones and, following a scan, they could find no further injuries.  The reason for the accident will be investigated and the team will update the media as soon as it has any further information.”

Gah.  Sorry.  A couple of points worth noting before I get going:

1) I’m currently quite busy with my job, which I get paid for, which means that my writing, which is a hobby, might suffer a bit over these next few weeks
2) Due to an unfortunate double booking, I’m off to Durham with some work colleagues tomorrow and am unlikely to see the Spanish Grand Prix in full until Monday night at the earliest.  Consequently, there’s not much point checking back here again until Tuesday.

Now that’s dealt with, what did we make of qualifying?

Circuit de Catalunya is full of medium and high speed corners, which makes it a big test of aerodynamic efficiency.  It is now safe to conclude, if it wasn’t already, that the Red Bull RB7 is very, very big on aero efficiency.  This weekend’s race has had only two horses in it since first practice on Friday, with Webber and Vettel way ahead of the pack and, interestingly, in that order.  Mark has generally been the faster of the two this weekend, but it should be noted that in qualifying, his KERS worked and Sebastian’s did not.

That’ll make no great difference to Sebastian’s weekend, because there doesn’t look to be anybody behind Red Bull with anything like the pace to challenge.  As is rapidly becoming standard, Lewis Hamilton came to the fore when it counted, leading a closely-bunched group of three which also contained Alonso and Button.  The trio were separated by 0.035 seconds – let’s do the old Grandstand videprinter trick of spelling out the more unbelievable numbers, just to reiterate that positions 3 to 5 on the grid were covered by thirty-five thousandths of a second.  Alonso in particular can be pleased with his day’s work, since the Ferrari looks like an understeering mess with no business being quite that far up the field.

It’s tricky to get a read on Mercedes, but at least one of their drivers should be in reasonable shape.  Rosberg starts P7, claiming to have concentrated on race setup after struggling with heavy tyre wear during the Turkish race.  The effects of that decision upon his Q3 laptime are impossible to quantify, particularly given the erratic form shown by the Silver Arrows this year, but on longer runs Nico has so far looked to have a slight edge over the McLarens, Alonso and Vitaly Petrov, all of whom start directly ahead.

Michael Schumacher starts 3 places behind, not because of some brilliant tactical decision to save tyres for the race (I’m looking at you, Eddie Jordan) but because his KERS wouldn’t work in Q3.  Schumi did a single lap on hard tyres, just in case anyone followed him out on the same type of rubber for a direct competition, then bailed out when everyone else used the soft tyres, which appeared to bring a gain of around 2 seconds per lap.  Michael therefore has an extra set of softs for tomorrow, along with the advantage of being able to start on any tyres he likes and the bonus of showing good pace all weekend.  Ally that to his fondness for rapid starts and the Red Baron becomes one to keep an eye on tomorrow.

Further back, it was a shame to see Force India completely give up on Q2, even if you can understand the decision to run hard tyres when everyone else had softs.  The soft is faster and less durable so it pays to save as many as possible, with Q2 being a good opportunity to do so if you don’t have any real hope of making it through to the top 10 shootout.  One of the unfortunate and presumably unintended side-effects of these Pirelli tyres is that the qualifying hour, previously so full of drama and tension, is now as much an exercise in tyre management as going quickly.  There’s none of the old excitement as the clock ticks to the end of sessions 2 and 3, with so many drivers doing a single run early in the session and settling for whatever that run gives them.

The trade-off, of course, is that the racing is now much more exciting.  Given the choice, I’d always have it that way – the race is the part that counts for something, after all – but why have to make the choice?  Martin Brundle made an interesting suggestion in commentary today, which was to allocate an extra set of tyres to the top 10 runners for use in the last 5 minutes of Q3, thus guaranteeing that the session builds to a crescendo just as it used to.  It seems a simple, effective solution which wouldn’t significantly increase costs but would do a lot to improve what we’re contractually obliged to call The Show.  Why not go for something like that?

Tomorrow’s race is something of an acid test for this year’s rules package.  It’s traditional for the Spanish Grand Prix to be something of a snoozer, to the extent that in 1999 only one overtaking move was recorded during the entire Grand Prix (that move, fact fans, was Damon Hill passing Rubens Barrichello for 7th on the inside of turn 5, which I recall not because it was a brilliant pass but because I’d waited about 40 laps for something, anything to happen).  Because the Barcelona track is so aero-dependent and the cars are so aero-reliant, it’s incredibly difficult to follow another car closely while contending with the trail of turbulent air left in its wake.  The only recognised overtaking spot for Formula 1 cars is the first chicane, which this year marks the end of the DRS zone, but that section has a high entry speed and a short braking distance so it’s by no means an easy move.  This year, with Pirelli having now built in a significant performance gap between the soft and hard tyres on a circuit that’s abrasive at the best of times, might we see more?

You don’t have to stick your neck out and venture an opinion, though if you’d like to, this post has a comments section and I’d love to hear from you.  I’m quite prepared to look like a lemon on your behalf, though, so here goes: as the tyres go off, or during phases where the lead car has hard tyres and the pursuer has softs, I think this year’s race might see some overtaking done through turns 4, 5 and 10.  The best bit?  Given my plans for tomorrow, you’ve got the chance to come back and laugh at me before I even know how wrong I was…

The Grid

1: Mark Webber (Red Bull), 1:20.981
2: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), +0.200 seconds
3: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +0.980 seconds
4: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +0.983 seconds
5. Jenson Button (McLaren), +1.015 seconds
6: Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +1.490 seconds
7: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +1.618 seconds
8. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.907 seconds
9. Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +1.971 seconds
10: Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), no time

Eliminated in Q2:

11: Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
12: Sergio Perez (Sauber)
13: Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso)
14: Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber)
15: Hekki Kovalainen (Lotus)
16: Paul di Resta (Force India)
17: Adrian Sutil (Force India)

Eliminated in Q1:

18: Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
19: Rubens Barrichello (Williams)
20: Timo Glock (Virgin)
21: Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT)
22: Narain Karthikeyan (HRT)
23: Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
24: Nick Heidfeld (Renault), no time due to fire in morning practice

Summarising rather than recapping, for several reasons.  It’s late.  I ate quite a lot earlier and feel somewhat lethargic.  I played the guitar for a couple of hours and keep getting cramps in my hand and forearm.  Most importantly of all, I’ve been at the cider.

Still, we should probably say something, right?

  • Another race, another Vettel pole position.  Not even losing most of Friday to a heavy crash in the rain slowed him down.  This represents Sebastian’s 8th consecutive front row start.  The last man to manage more was Damon Hill, never outside the first 2 places on the grid from the last race of 1995 to the last race of 1996.
  • Next door to him, though still 4 tenths away from being ahead, the other Red Bull.  Last year, as you’ll doubtless recall, Vettel and Webber completed 40 harmonious laps of Istanbul Park and then crashed into each other.  While a repeat performance tomorrow would do the championship fight no end of good, one suspects it wouldn’t be received quite so well by the team.  It’s a start for Mark, but there’s still quite a gap to bridge before he can really begin to threaten his team mate.
  • Mercedes have a Magic Paddle in their car.  It’s a device that gives the drivers quick, easy access to various settings on the car, though nobody’s prepared to say which ones.  Whatever it does, it’s situated next to the Curiously Ineffective Q3 lever, which Michael Schumacher pulled in error.  Rosberg has outqualified both McLarens and starts 3rd, while Schumi has been as quick as or quicker than Nico all weekend and is clearly mystified by how he’s ended up 8th, 1.1 seconds slower.  At least he made it to Q3, though.
  • Rubens Barrichello didn’t, but 11th is a step forward for Williams and he was within 24 thousandths of pipping Heidfeld to the last Q3 spot.  Signs of life from a sleeping giant?
  • They’ll be hoping so, as the scrap to avoid being embarrassed by Lotus heats up.  Heikki Kovalainen, trouncing Jarno Trulli yet again, is inching ever closer to the back of the midfield pack in qualifying.  Williams, Force India and Toro Rosso in particular must now be casting a nervous glance over their shoulders in the final seconds of Q1.
  • Kamui Kobayashi, who isn’t exactly backward in coming forward when there’s overtaking to be done, starts last after his Sauber’s wheels ceased to turn before he’d recorded a flying lap.  The idea of Kamui, a garage full of fresh tyres, KERS and DRS on a track which has always allowed some overtaking is a mouth-watering one.  Judging from his BBC interview earlier today, a wide-eyed affair in which a grin was never once off his face, Kobayashi thinks so too.  Keep your eyes on him tomorrow.

WordPress, the fine bunch of chaps responsible for letting this particular idiot have his own web space, tell me that people have been visiting in reasonable numbers all week, even though I’ve written nothing.  This, I assume, means you’re expecting some reasoned, rational analysis of events in Shanghai.  Failing that, perhaps the usual drivel will do.

Here, we have a problem, because the medical issue I’ve been referring to as ‘just a little cough’ for the last few days is now just a little cough in the same way that the Great War was just a little argument.  One of the consequences of whatever’s currently attacking me is that, ridiculously, it’s a bit tricky to type for any great length of time.  Hopefully we can give tomorrow the usual treatment, but today…:

  • Vettel on pole by a mile.  Nothing like a shock result, eh?  Kinky Kylie clearly enjoys the spotlight.
  • Webber in 18th with broken KERS?  Nothing like a etc.  This should be more surprising than it is, but given how close he got to dropping out early in Malaysia, it’s somehow almost reasonable.  Webbo carried a huge amount of understeer with him through Q1, suggesting he’s not got a handle on the RB7 or on how to get the best from a set of hard Pirellis.
  • This di Resta fellow is really quite good.
  • This Schumacher fellow…the man and the team say he had a recurrence of the DRS trouble that hampered his Malaysian qualifying.  That’s supported by his run through the braking zone for the hairpin at the end of Q2, twinned with the town of Sideways-on-the-Lockstops.  He’s been slightly down on Rosberg all weekend, as is standard for Michael on a track where he’s never really excelled, but even so, starting 14th when the other Merc is up in 4th is going to sting.
  • Ferrari continue to have fairly dismal qualifying pace, 1.4 seconds away from pole.  Alonso and Massa are separated by 0.026 seconds, which would suggest that we’re seeing two drivers at the very limit of what the car will offer this weekend.  Their good fortune, as Alonso would have demonstrated last weekend had he not been crashing into old friends, is that the car is solid in race trim during a year in which the rules allow them to take full advantage of that.
  • The good news for Renault is that the car seems quick again this weekend.  The bad news is that Vitaly Petrov’s R31 broke down immediately after setting a fine lap in Q2, reasoning that whatever happened next in life couldn’t possibly be any better, while Nick Heidfeld has crashed his way through an entire supply of current-spec front wings and starts 16th.
The Grid
1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1:33.706
2. Jenson Button (McLaren), +0.715 seconds
3. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +0.757 seconds
4. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +0.964 seconds
5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +1.413 seconds
6. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1.439 seconds
7. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +2.452 seconds
8. Paul di Resta (Force India), +2.484 seconds
9. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +2.497 seconds
10. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), no time, car failure after posting Q2 lap time

Eliminated in Q2:

11. Adrian Sutil (Force India)
12. Sergio Perez (Sauber)
13. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber)
14. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes)
15. Rubens Barrichello (Williams)
16. Nick Heidfeld (Renault)
17. Pastor Maldonado (Williams)

Eliminated in Q1:

18. Mark Webber (Red Bull)
19. Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus)
20. Jarno Trulli (Lotus)
21. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin)
22. Timo Glock (Virgin)
23. Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT)
24. Narain Karthikeyan (HRT)

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)