Saturday 17 March 2012

Melbourne Qualifying: Woking's working

It just goes to show that no one knows anything. Qualifying in Melbourne began to provide answers to some of the questions that had built up over the off-season. Some of the answers were as expected, but many were not.

McLaren have the front row of the grid all to themselves, with Lewis Hamilton ahead. This may not count as a surprise entirely, the Woking outfit have been quietly confident the whole time and the mood music from pre-season testing was that they're at the sharp end. Still, McLaren having a clear neck ahead of their rivals here is a turn-up, and while the season is long it's also encouraging for them as pace in Melbourne, contrary to popular belief, has been historically a pretty reliable barometer for how the championship will go.

Lewis Hamilton will start on pole
Credit: / CC
Furthermore, on the evidence of qualifying the Lewis Hamilton we know and love, from the top of his game, may be back more often in 2012.

And, against expectations, Red Bull look like they're behind at the moment. Throughout qualifying (as well as practice and the latter part of testing) the evidence for this had built up, including that their final test technical upgrade was transparently problematic. But old habits die hard and we'd learned over the past two years never to write them off, and that they have a tendency to pull rabbits out of the hat when it most matters. But no rabbits were forthcoming today, and the Bulls have to content themselves with the third row only, Webber ahead of the two. It also all goes to show that, even with relative rule stability, nothing in Formula One ever stands still.

Other mood music from testing included that Mercedes and Lotus were expected to make a step forward. These were also made good today, though in both cases there were some bum notes. In Lotus's case, Romain Grosjean did an amazing job to stick his car in third place on the grid, fewer than four tenths shy of the pole time. I've said it before, but Romain Grosjean's story, fighting back after being written off by the sport in 2009, is a wonderful one. Things were less good at the other side of the garage, with Kimi Raikkonen not getting out of the first qualifying session, leaving him to start in 18th. Kimi's seemed rather ill-at-ease all weekend, asking for adjustments to his steering and the like, and his efforts today were niggled with errors. It's way too early to write him off and comebacks in F1 are difficult (ask Michael Schumacher), but today wasn't a good start.

Michael Schumacher claimed his
best starting position since 2006
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And Mercedes for much of qualifying looked to be right up there with McLaren, possibly even marginally ahead. But come the final, vital, session they faded and will start fourth and seventh, with Schumi the quicker (incidentally, that's his best starting position since Japan 2006). It's not clear of course how much the cars around them were holding pace back for Q3, but the impression was that the Mercs didn't do themselves justice in that final session. Nico Rosberg in particular appeared to let the occasion get to him, his final runs scrappy and not matching his best time from the previous session. Certainly, Ross Brawn afterwards looked disappointed with the outcome in a session which started with them possible favourites for pole.

And then there's Ferrari, who it transpires are as bad as people were saying. The car continued to look evil, and Fernando Alonso will start 12th tomorrow and Felipe Massa 16th. And this was from a team for whom both cars got into the top ten in every round in 2011. Alonso did much the better job driving the knife edge machine, but ended his hopes with what appeared a basic error in Q2, sticking a wheel on the grass on braking, which pitched him off. But even without this it was impossible to see how even he could have got any higher than eighth on the grid at the most, and his best time was still a second clear of what Massa managed. Much to do at Maranello.

And a shout out to Pastor Maldonado and Williams, who'll start in eighth. I believe Maldonado will prove to a lot of people this year that he's more than a pay driver, and Williams it seems aren't going to spend 2012 hanging off the back of the midfield, as they did in 2011.

But even with Melbourne's tendency for safety cars, the new Pirelli tyres throwing unknowns into the strategy and a tightly packed field, it's hard to see how race victory won't go to a McLaren tomorrow, barring very strange occurrences. Evidence from testing is that the Mercedes isn't the best on its tyres over a longer run, and the Red Bull isn't the perfect car to have in traffic, so both squads may struggle get among the Woking men.


  1. Always nice when (by far) the prettiest car on the grid is also the fastest - perhaps the rest of the field should investigate running a "McLaren nose" and stop blighting the sport with their platypus-billed monstrosities?

  2. Thanks for your comments both. Romain Grosjean indeed did an excellent job to qualify third, and the Lotus is clearly a handy car. Still, I'd be surprised if he can get among the McLarens in the race barring problems for them. A podium for Grosjean is far from out of the question though.

    On the platypus noses, weirdly I stopped noticing them fairly quickly once the cars were up and running around the track. Didn't think I'd be saying that a few weeks ago! Sadly from an aesthetic point of view, I don't think anyone will be copying McLaren on the nose design this year (from what I gather, in terms of performance there's nothing critically right or way with either the McLaren approach or the 'platypus' approach). Still, apparently the FIA are working on outlawing the platypus for next year!