Saturday 17 November 2012

Austin Qualifying: Seb continues his Bull run

I remember reading a story told by the sadly recently-departed Professor Sid Watkins: in a qualifying session at Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix one year, he was poised in the parked medical car, with Frank Gardner in the driver's seat. The commentary on their radio said something about the track being slippy, to which Gardner, having seen Ayrton Senna emerge from the pits, chortled: 'Watch - the circuit is suddenly going to get unslippy now...'. He was right.

It was tempting to view Sebastian Vettel's run to pole today, indeed how he's looked from the moment his RB8 set wheel on the Austin track, in the same way.

Sebastian Vettel has a clean pair of heels again
Credit:  Ryan Bayona / CC
As expected, the Austin facility is a fine one and the layout varied and challenging, with the size of the crowds in attendance indeed a good news story. But as also was expected in some quarters, the track is characterised by low grip. And then some, the F1 car on it (not helped by Pirelli bringing an ultra-conservative tyre selection) has appeared a lot like a duck on ice both through the turns and when under acceleration. But both yesterday and today the Red Bull - no, check that, Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull - looks like it has been operating on different tarmac to everyone else. Seb has been absolutely nailed to the floor in his RB8, especially in the technical final sector of the lap, pulling out rapid lap times as he liked and as his rivals simultaneously tip-toed around desperately seeking adhesion and temperature in their tyres. The rest of the paddock must have undergone something akin to the grief cycle as Seb topped every session, and by a distance each time.

The times in the last throes of qualifying were a bit closer than anticipated though as Lewis Hamilton, continuing good recent form, was just a tenth shy of Seb's best and indeed was quicker in the flowing sector one (though apparently Seb also made a small mistake). But even so somehow Seb topping the times seemed inevitable. And thus it came to pass.

And it gets better for Seb. For his title rival, Fernando Alonso, it seemed the track was a bit slippier than for most and he recorded only the ninth fastest time (which at the time of writing converts to eighth as Romain Grosjean has a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change), and was out-qualified by his team mate Felipe Massa for only the second time in 2012 (and the first time if you don't include when Alonso's rear anti-roll bar broke). And curiously all the while Massa's car looked much more stable than Alonso's did. There has been some suggestion that Alonso's set his car up more with race fuel loads in mind, though that was pooh-poohed somewhat by Pat Fry who reckoned Alonso's and Massa's cars were pretty similar on set up.

How much can Fernando Alonso retrieve
from the wreckage tomorrow?
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
All of a sudden, rather than an opportunity to get points back on Vettel, Alonso's race tomorrow looks in advance to be a grim battle to keep his title hopes alive mathematically going into the final race. If Vettel wins, as he's favourite to, Alonso needs to finish fourth to do that. None ahead of him look like easy pickings, and indeed the likes of Button and Grosjean may offer a threat from behind.

So, a march to victory for Seb tomorrow, in the race and effectively (or definitely) the championship? Most probably; Seb's advantage out there looks gargantuan, even though Lewis threatened to make quali interesting. You feel that only something strange happening can stop Vettel. However, it should not be forgotten that F1 is never predictable and the sport is such that the unfortunate ruining your day at a stroke can never be considered to be out of the question.

Also, at Austin, in some ways the grid could mean less than is usually the case. Yes, it's expected that overtaking will be difficult, tyre degradation low and one-stoppers will be in play just about all round, meaning few strategic options to make positions. But, after turn one tomorrow the order could look very different to that on the starting grid.

For one thing, those in even-numbered grid slots, and thus starting off the racing line, are thought to be at a massive disadvantage; Massa opined that starting there is a lot like starting in the wet. But Seb on pole also won't be on easy street, as apparently the pole is just at the point where the track starts to incline, meaning he may be at a disadvantage too. What about Mark Webber in third? Well, he's been struggling on his starts for a good while now. What's more, for everyone tyres will be cold and there's an uphill heavy braking zone at the first corner (remember the carnage at the first turn at Fuji in 2008?). As I said, after turn one tomorrow things could look very different...

Then of course there is Alonso. As we are reminded frequently (indeed, in just about every race this year) he's a man that cannot be written off until he's very definitely on the plane back to Oviedo. If a miracle is what is required tomorrow, then he's absolutely the man you'd pick to deliver one, and it's hard to imagine that his car tomorrow will be as bad as it was today. And remember that 2012 has been a year for strange, diverting races where things are put on their head, and at venues wherein no such thing was anticipated (see Valencia and Abu Dhabi). And Alonso's scored strong results (including two wins) from further back on the grid this year.

Furthermore, remember where we are. Austin would indeed be a fitting place for the 'weird' to happen. But, then again, you feel that it will take the genuinely weird for Seb to be headed at the chequered flag tomorrow.

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