Saturday 1 September 2012

Spa Qualifying: Push the Button

Going into today's Spa qualifying session there was a driver whose name was not among those being touted as contenders for pole position. He didn't especially light the track up in the one dry practice session, and indeed is enduring a season in which he's been struggling for the most part. And moreover, qualifying isn't his strong suit: he'd never claimed a pole position for his current team and it was getting on for three-and-a-half years since he last started a Grand Prix from the very front.

You may have worked out by now that the guy I'm talking about is Jenson Button. And what do you know, he only went and claimed pole position today, and comfortably. It's yet more evidence that F1, while many things, is almost never predictable.

Jenson Button surprised everyone by blitzing the field in Spa
Credit: Morio / CC
Even in the early throes of the qualifying hour today it looked like it would be more of the same for Jenson, as he complained on his radio about the car's handling. But almost immediately he went fastest of all ahead of all the usual suspects, and then in the second session he pulled his party piece partway through and set a mark some eight tenths of a second under the best of the guys who had in advance been expected to fight it out for pole. All of a sudden everyone had to radically re-calibrate: Jenson was clearly the guy to beat. It stayed that way in the vital final session, as Jenson immediately set a time six tenths clear of the rest and no one (apart from himself) was able to beat it at the last. Indeed, no one really got close.

Quite where this all came from isn't clear. It seems the most likely explanation is that given that yesterday's practice running was a wash out there was generally an element of 'suck it and see' about setting the cars up. Further, McLaren had brought a new trimmed rear wing which apparently didn't work all that well in morning practice, but while Lewis abandoned it before qualifying Jenson stuck with it. And when it mattered everything hit the sweet spot for him. And we know that when Jenson's happy with the car underneath him he can be devastating, and usually is.

Kamui Kobayashi will start second - and both drivers look strong
Credit: Morio / CC
And the unusual starting order for tomorrow's race doesn't end with Jenson. Next up we have Kamui Kobayashi and Pastor Maldonado in second and third respectively. The Saubers look consistently to have been right with the front runners at Spa, seemingly liking fast, flowing circuits of which this is one; indeed, Sergio Perez also starts high up in fifth. And the tendency has been for the Saubers to do better in the races than qualifying. Can the two pilots step up to the plate tomorrow?

And while there may be many reasons to criticise Pastor Maldonado, today he again showed that if nothing else there is pace there. Further, the Williams has performed well on quick corners all year, and did again today. And we saw in both Barcelona and Valencia that Maldonado is perfectly capable of maintaining the pace of the leading bunch throughout (so long as he avoids scrapes), so he's a real joker in the pack for tomorrow. The one bum note for Williams was provided by Bruno Senna, who after a strong weekend in Hungary appeared to go back to his old self here and starts down in 17th.

Only then do we find the guy mentioned by many in despatches as the potential victor here: Kimi Raikkonen. For much of the hour he looked the man most likely to topple Button, but apparently made a small error in his final run which shuffled him behind Kobayashi and Maldonado in the starting order. Worse for him, the car's pace is mainly based on a mighty middle sector, and it doesn't look quick in the first or third sectors where most of the overtaking tomorrow will be done. Running in traffic could be traumatic for Kimi.

And while Fernando Alonso is to start only sixth, from the championship angle it actually looks not too bad for him with all of his closest contenders even further back (Webber will start 12th after a gearbox penalty, Hamilton 7th and Vettel 10th), aside from Kimi who's only two places up on him. And Alonso (alongside Button) is the quickest in the sector through Eau Rouge and Kemmel, so he'll be in a good position to overtake people in the race. In any case he did enough today to show that some of the talk of Ferrari's death post-Hungary has been greatly exaggerated. In Vettel's case qualifying was particularly traumatic as he admitted subsequently that he didn't have any particular problems; the car simply wasn't quick enough.

Given we're at Spa it's hard to imagine tomorrow's race being without incident. But even with this it's hard to see who exactly can stop Jenson Button if his qualifying form is even close to being replicated. But the grid is mixed up, there are some no-compromise racers at the sharp end, passing will be more than possible and even though no rain is forecast at Spa you just never know. There's no such thing as a forgone conclusion in these parts.

UPDATE 01/09/12: No sooner had I published this report as news came through that Pastor Maldonado had received a three-place grid penalty for impeding Nico Hulkenberg in Q1. So, Pastor starts in sixth and Raikkonen, Perez and Alonso all move up one. I don't believe that footage of the Maldonado/Hulkenberg incident has been shown, so I can't comment on Pastor's offence or the punishment, though we can infer from that he only received a three-place drop, not the customary five, that it wasn't egregious blocking. And you'd think that starting P6 rather than P3 doesn't totally scupper his race chances, especially not at Spa. I'm invariably a bit uncomfortable when the striking of a stewards' pen achieves that end.

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