Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sepang Qualifying: Groundhog day

The McLarens lock out the front row of the grid, with Lewis ahead thanks to a stunning first flying lap in the final session. Where have I heard that one before?

Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position
for the second week in succession
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Yes, Sepang's qualifying today was just like at Melbourne last Saturday, with the McLarens on top and Lewis Hamilton claiming pole position. But last week it was his team mate Jenson Button who came on stronger on race day, getting more out of his tyres seemingly on the way to a comfortable victory. And here at Sepang tyre wear is much more acute than at Melbourne all else being equal, so will it be same again tomorrow? Not necessarily for a number of reasons: but Lewis will nevertheless between now and tomorrow be thinking mostly about stopping Sunday in Malaysia being groundhog day of last week, just as Saturday was.

For tomorrow's race outcome, a lot will depend on the order at the end of the first lap, most notably because, again just like in Melbourne, Michael Schumacher is lurking menacingly on the second row. He qualified third here, the first time since his comeback that he's got into the top three press conference. Schumi's usually good off the line and in leapfrogging cars on the opening tour. But there is some evidence that he could form a road block tomorrow: the Mercs won't be able to use their DRS-activated F-Duct rear wing as often, and Melbourne form suggested that tyre wear is still a particular problem for them (though Schumi insists that was a one-off). And the Merc's quick on the straights (though didn't look too special through the speed traps today) and Schumi never has been the easiest guy to pass. So if, for example, he gets between Lewis and Jenson tomorrow in the first stint it could swing the race in favour of whoever's ahead. If he gets between the McLarens and the rest it could allow the Woking men to make a vital break for the day.

Where Michael Schumacher is
could be vital for tomorrow's race result
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Which in itself could be vital, as it appears that the Red Bulls and Lotuses are somewhere near McLaren on pace, particularly on race day. The Bulls, again just like in Melbourne, weren't quite there in qualifying and will start fourth and fifth. Another parallel with Melbourne: Mark Webber's ahead of the two, continuing his fine 2012 form. But Sebastian Vettel may not be down and out, especially as he's gone for a contrary strategy by starting on the hard tyre. We should keep an eye on him.

And again just like last week, the Lotuses came alive in qualifying, and Kimi (unlike last Saturday) looked just like his old self, by running with the front runners throughout and setting the fifth quickest time, which following a grid penalty for changing a gearbox converts to starting in tenth. This is a pity, as the evidence of today is that he's right in the mix on pace. Romain Grosjean will start sixth, and just four tenths of a second covered the McLarens, Mercedes, Red Bulls and Lotuses in today's final laptime shake up.

In another mirror image from Melbourne qualifying, Nico Rosberg fluffed his lines in the final qualifying session at Sepang, again locking a wheel at the first braking zone, almost like watching a replay from last week. He'll start in seventh, in a car that in qualifying trim probably deserved so much more. This is vital season for Rosberg to prove himself, especially if his car is competitive, and if he persists in not getting the job done he'll get an unwanted reputation.

Behind them, Fernando Alonso did all that he could to haul his recalcitrant Ferrari up to P9 (which converts to a net eighth on the grid) despite a KERS problem, Sergio Perez completes the top ten (and will start ninth) and Williams again showed up well, with Maldonado knocking on the top ten's door, only to compromise his efforts with an off in the second qualifying session.

But tomorrow will be all about Jenson looking to repeat last Sunday's race, and those around him trying to make something different happen.

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