Saturday 15 October 2011

Korea Qualifying: Hamilton takes his Korea opportunity

Today represented a redemption. Lewis Hamilton's reputation has been kicked pillar to post in recent times, arguably with some justification. But today he claimed pole position for tomorrow's Korean Grand Prix, and looked just like his old livewire self in so doing. He never was going to be down forever.

If Lewis on pole position seems a bit unusual that's because it is. For one thing, it ends a 16 race Red Bull monopoly of the front of the grid, which stretched all the way back to last year's Brazilian Grand Prix. For another, it's also Lewis's first pole in close to 18 months - Canada last year was the last occasion he started at the front of the pack.

Lewis Hamilton claimed
a fine pole position
Credit: / CC
But there were plenty of clues in the recent evidence that a McLaren pole position wasn't far away. Their technical upgrade, brought to Suzuka last week, is clearly a good one. Button won that race of course, and Lewis probably would have claimed pole there as well but for a dropped ball. McLaren look to be the class of the field again this weekend.

Pole turned out to be a McLaren versus Red Bull affair. Sebastian Vettel managed to split the McLarens to qualify second, and Red Bull have opted for a contrary strategy wherein they sought to save prime tyres (the softs) rather than the options (super softs), with a view to running new prime tyres after the opening stint in the race - they have enough sets for three stints on new soft tyres tomorrow. Button and Webber fill the second row in that order, Jenson was helped by Webber having to abandon his last run after a mistake.

They're then followed by the Ferraris, with Felipe Massa again ahead of the two, for the fourth time in six races. Alonso, like Webber, abandoned his last run after a mistake. Still, Alonso sounds confident for tomorrow (and he finished far ahead of Massa in each of the four races he was outqualified by him in). And the reason he may be confident is tyres.

Sebastian Vettel  has plenty of new
soft tyres to use tomorrow
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
It's been a theme of this season that the characteristics of the Pirelli tyres mean that the feed in between qualifying and race isn't as direct as previously. And in the Korean race it may be taken to an extreme. While last year's Korea race finished in the dark famously, this year may be about stabs in the dark. That's because there's been very little dry weather running in Korea this weekend, and given the Pirellis are a new tyre supplier this year, have deliberately engineered their tyres to have limited life span, and have brought their two softest compounds here this weekend, there are a lot of unknowns, and concerns, about managing them throughout tomorrow's race. Korea's track surface generally gives engineers wear worries, in part because it doesn't get much running on it in the rest of the year. And the 'green' characteristics of the track, which tends to increase tyre wear, after so little dry weather running so far won't help matters.

Fernando Alonso may come on strong in the race
Credit: / CC
Of course, it may be a fuss over nothing (and there were similar concerns before Spa and Suzuka and there weren't many hitches at either event), but we just don't know at this stage. Such worries may go some way to explaining Lewis's glum expression after qualifying - the McLaren can be less good than others in extending its tyre life and Lewis himself tends to be less good than his team mate on this score. And Seb's radio calls after his qualifying run suggested they think they're onto something with their strategy.

Then there's Ferrari, who've usually been the easiest on their tyres on the 'big three', and their cars had understeering characteristics in qualifying. This, if you're being generous to them, may have been deliberately engineered to assist them keeping their rear tyres in good working order tomorrow.

Many of the field may be tyred and emotional after tomorrow's race.

Highlights on Korea Grand Prix qualifying (UK users only)
Qualifying results

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