Sunday, 22 May 2011

Barcelona Qually: Bulls Fighting in Spain

Barcelona has proved to be Red Bull country. This wasn't particular unexpected in itself - the long rapid curves give such importance to aero advantage that they could have been designed by Adrian Newey himself. But even with that the advantage the Bulls have here has left their rivals gasping. Only Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso could get within a second of them in qualifying yesterday, and even then only just. The teams chasing them, fresh in Barcelona with a variety of upgrades, will hope this isn't the way of things at future rounds.

The only surprise at the front was that pole was claimed by Mark Webber, rather than by Sebastian Vettel, for the first time this season. It was perfect timing by Mark, it's a track he has gone well on historically, and if Seb and got one over on him here of all places yesterday it would have been very difficult to see him coming back. He was assisted by the fact that his KERS was working, and Seb's not (not for the first time year), but Mark's probably due a bit of luck.

Today's race will be fascinating. If Webber leads off the line then Vettel, unusually for 2011, will be out of his comfort zone, and it'll be fascinating to see how he'll react. There are lots of signs of a new maturity and calm in Vettel's armoury in 2011, and today may be a good chance for him to prove it. For as long as he's not at the front he won't be able to just react to those behind him strategy-wise, as he has done in most of the races this season. He will have DRS on his side, which will make things a lot easier. On this flipside, if the KERS glitch is still active then passing will be a bit more difficult.

It's tempting to consider those behind the Bulls as simply being part of the landscape, though the Bulls' pace advantage has been more pronounced in qualifying than in the races this year. McLaren still look to be the best of the rest, Lewis qualifying a smidgen ahead of Jenson. Ferrari have had a rather muddled time of it in Barcelona, not helped by their creative interpretation of the rear wing regulations being outlawed. Alonso seemingly performed another prodigy to split the McLarens and start fourth. The Ferrari has tended to come alive on race day this year, so he may be one to watch for the best behind the Bulls award. He doesn't have new soft tyres to call on though, having unfathomably used a set in qually one yesterday.

As if to prove the Barcelona track's relative predictability, it's exactly the same top five on the gird, in the same order, as here last season.

The qualifying of the 'new' F1 in 2011 most obviously showed itself yesterday as well. Saving tyres for race day was the priority for much of the field, to the point that the on track action was greatly diminished. No one in the final ten did more than one quick run for qualifying position, indeed Schumi did none at all. And even in the second session the Force Indias didn't use any of their soft tyre allocation. Watching the progress of all three today will be fun. Strategy, and more to the point the best use of the wood-like harder Pirelli tyre, will be vital to today's finishing order, so Schumi and the Force Indias may well have pulled a fast one.

But despite this, and despite that I believe it's long overdue that the race's relative importance compared to qualifying has been increased, I feel that something could be done now to spice up qualifying a bit. Martin Brundle's suggestion to free up a set of soft tyres for the final five minutes of the last session isn't the worst idea.

And a worthy pat on the back for Pastor Maldonado, who qualified ninth. It's easy to forget that he is GP2 champion, so his widespread dismissal as a mere 'pay driver' is extremely harsh. Let's also not forget as well that Nico Hulkenberg, who he replaced at Williams, was crash-happy in the first few rounds of his debut season in 2010, and often looked out of his depth. Let's hope this is the start of the Venezuelan similarly getting to grips with things, as well as of Williams being on the upturn.

Qualifying results

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