Saturday 26 March 2011

Melbourne Qually: Seb delivers a rude awakening

The rest of the field must feel a little like they've been beaten up.

After all of the winter optimism about a tight scrap at the front, Red Bull, or more to the point Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, curtly reminded them all of reality by comfortably qualifying on pole for tomorrow's Australian Grand Prix. He was a full three-quarters of a second ahead of the next man, Lewis Hamilton, and was even further ahead of his Red Bull team mate, Mark Webber. And all of this without touching his KERS button, worth around 0.3 seconds per lap (though Hamilton didn't touch his either).

Vettel's opponents have only small crumbs of comfort. Tyre management and strategy could well throw a googly in tomorrow, and the direct 'feed in' between qually and race won't be the case to anything like the same extent as in previous years. Plus Melbourne has historically been a rather atypical track and not always the most reliable indicator of general competitiveness throughout the season (indeed, Jacques Villeneuve debuted the 1997 season by qualifying fully 1.7 seconds ahead of the pack here, only for it to transpire to be one of the most competitive F1 seasons on record). But, despite all of this, there will be serious head scratching going on up and down the paddock. There's absolutely no sign of resting on laurels from either Vettel or his team.

Of their opponents McLaren can be the most content. They demonstrated their come back, hinted at yesterday, is indeed genuine. Lewis was mighty as always and splits the Red Bulls by starting second (Webber was strangely subdued - it does seem he for whatever reason often struggles to get it together at his home event, though he's admitted to being mystified by the gap to Vettel), and Jenson lining up fourth. He like Webber will be concerned by the gap to his KERS-less team mate.

But possibly the biggest surprise is the performance of the Ferrari, who in many people's views won the winter testing war. They looked nervous and short of grip for the most part today. Alonso salvaged fifth place, though he'll be more concerned by the 1.3 second (and arguably a 'net' 1.6 second) gap to the pole time, but he's insistent the gap isn't representative, at least when it comes to future races. Tomorrow may be damage limitation for him. Massa continued where he left off last season by consistently being a few tenths shy of his team mate's pace, and he seemed to struggle more than Alonso to keep his bucking Horse under control, including one spin on an out lap at the first corner. He'll start eighth tomorrow.

The Mercedes were also slightly underwhelming after the optimism of the final pre-season test. Rosberg will line up seventh, and Schumi, facing last chance saloon this year in many ways, didn't get into the final qually session and will line up eleventh.

Many of the midfield runners made good on their pre-season promise. Indeed, Petrov surprised everyone with his pace to qualify sixth, showing that with a year's experience under his belt and being out of Kubica's shadow he may be stepping up to the mark. Heidfeld, meanwhile, curiously didn't get out of the first qually session. The Saubers also looked good throughout, Kobayashi will start ninth and reckoned he could have been higher. Perez has looked strong all weekend, and will start in thirteenth. Buemi's Toro Rosso completes the top ten. Also, a special should out to Paul di Resta who out-qualified his team mate Sutil (they'll start in P14 and P16 respectively).

Sutil did provide the most frightening drama of qualifying vis-a-vis the new Drag Reduction System, spinning wildly at the exit of the last corner as he opened his rear wing, and only missing the walls by massive good fortune. Let's hope this sort of thing doesn't become a common occurrence.

And the HRTs didn't improve much on yesterday's performance. While they did at least get out on track they were miserably off the pace, and having qualified outside the required 107% of the fastest time in qually one the stewards have confirmed they won't be allowed to race. A sensible decision, I suspect they only would have been mobile chicanes tomorrow.

With or without mobile chicanes, and even with the unknown of the new Pirellis, if Seb gets through the first corner OK tomorrow it's hard to see the race being anything other than a demonstration run. 

Qualifying results and report on the Autosport website

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