Saturday 22 September 2012

Singapore Qualifying: Lewis's light fantastic

In the end it was just like last time at Monza. Qualifying at Singapore looked certain to be a game for two players, with one of the two being Lewis Hamilton and the rest scrapping for third place at best. And just like last time the guy that wasn't Lewis faded in the final, vital, session, leaving Lewis to claim pole position as he liked.

Yet another pole for Lewis and McLaren
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
This time we anticipated that Lewis's tête-à-tête would be with Sebastian Vettel, the sort of two-way battle at the front with the rest nowhere that Singapore seems to specialise in. The Red Bull, back on a high downforce track, looked fully to have returned to the sharp end and Seb had topped all practice sessions. And he looked like he intended to keep things that way in qualifying, with as mentioned only Lewis a probable challenger. But Seb's pace tapered when it most mattered and as a consequence the relatively meagre (compared with expectations) third on the grid is where he'll start his race tomorrow. And while Alonso's fading at the last in Monza qualifying was traced to mechanical problems, explanation for Seb's plight this time at the time of writing is less clear. Driver and team appear to be scratching around for a convincing hypothesis (Christian Horner attributed the sudden lack of pace to Seb losing momentum on his out laps, which struck me as a little lame).

Still, none of this at all takes away from the pole-sitting driver and team. Lewis's gap to the next guy was stunning on this track where it seems the driver can make a considerable difference, half a second under the best of the rest even without improving on his second run. It continues a season wherein, despite the occasional whirlwind off track, on track Lewis has been right at the top of his formidable game. And McLaren now can boast four poles on the bounce on four very different circuits; such consistency bodes well for the Woking lot as they target the top of the drivers' and constructors' tables in the remaining rounds.

And speaking of the championship angle things get even better for them, with Seb starting third as mentioned and Fernando Alonso, his Ferrari not quite au point, to start fifth. The rest of the title contenders (if one doesn't count Jenson Button in fourth) are even further back.

So, Lewis is in prime position to take control of things from the front tomorrow, especially as the Marina Bay circuit isn't one that is generous with overtaking opportunities and in any case only Fernando Alonso (in Malaysia and Valencia) has won after starting away from the front row this season.

Sebastian Vettel's pace faded at the last,
but may be strong tomorrow
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
There are a few notes of worry in there for Lewis however. One is, on the evidence of Friday practice both the Red Bull and the Ferrari may be quicker than the McLaren over a race stint. Lewis's pace dropped off after 10 laps on the super softs on Friday, which if repeated tomorrow may make a two stopper difficult to pull off and thus may mean he has to stop once more than those behind. And this has the potential to spoil his day particularly around this the tightest of tracks. But on the other hand, it's been common this year for doom-and-gloom talk on tyre life made in advance to not come to eventuality on a Sunday. Another note of worry is that Lewis tagged a wall on his final qualifying run, meaning the team will need to take a good look at that before the race.

And the third reason for caution is the identity of the guy next to Lewis on the front row. There you'll find the brooding presence of Pastor Maldonado, who did a stunning job in qualifying. The Williams has always seemed to go well around the Marina Bay track, Pastor's something of a street circuit specialist and for all of his well-documented perceived foibles it cannot be denied that the guy is seriously quick. Of course, that he's got into plenty of scrapes this year will likely worry Lewis and others near the front tomorrow. But at Monza Pastor had his first trouble-free run in a while and has been full of talk in recent times of learning his lessons (though we've had false dawns with him before). And as we saw in Barcelona, Valencia and elsewhere Pastor is capable of a consistently fast race wherein he keeps his tyres in very good shape for longer than most. Perhaps, rather than accidents, it should be this that worries Lewis, Seb et al.

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