Saturday, 13 April 2013

Shanghai Qualifying: The talented Mr Hamilton

He's a talented boy that Lewis. And he showed it once again today.

China was anticipated as the latest dose of clarity in F1's blurry competitive order. However from a fairly early stage of the weekend the battle to prevail appeared to be a close run thing between Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull (on race pace anyway) with Kimi Raikkonen perhaps getting in on the action too. And so it proved today in qualifying.

But even among this all star cast Lewis Hamilton stole the show, producing a final lap that was something close to perfection which got him pole position by a clear length. It's a timely reminder that for all that his accompanying soap opera has distracted us on occasion, there is an astonishing racing driver at the core of it all. It's also Lewis's first pole for his new employers, and if anyone there wasn't fully persuaded of what exactly they have on their hands with their new commodity they surely will be now.

Lewis Hamilton put in an excellent pole lap
Credit: Morio / CC
But Lewis will also have a lot of talent right behind him tomorrow. Kimi Raikkonen is next up on the grid, his best starting slot in his time at Lotus and therefore he won't have the extent of his usual problems of being stuck in race day traffic. Not from the off anyway. Kimi may particularly be one to keep an eye on in the early soft tyre phase of the race, though the evidence of practice is that the Lotus isn't all that impressive on the mediums. And then there is the brooding presence of Fernando Alonso in third. The Ferrari has looked strong all weekend and we know that Alonso's tendency is to move forward from his starting slot, and thus will surely be a contender. And remember that Hamilton-Alonso duels are usually worth going a long way to see.

Hamilton's and Alonso's team mates respectively are next up. Even though Nico Rosberg's impressed in general this year, for the third time out of three it seemed that his pace faded a bit when it really mattered in the final jousts of qualifying. And I can recall that Nico had a shout at pole in the first two rounds of last season and fluffed it both times. He'll be hoping that this isn't a habit. He'll also be hoping that the close to four-tenth gap between him and Lewis of today is a blip rather than the shape of things to come.

Sebastian Vettel has gone a different way on strategy
Credit: Morio / CC
And as is usually the case at Shanghai we also have the added fascination of a split of strategies, that of tortoises and hares. The soft tyre was the one to be on for a quick quali lap, being around a second quicker. The trouble is that they don't stay that way for long, them falling apart disastrously and even generous estimates having the compound last for not longer than ten laps. Some therefore have cut and run, forsaking a high grid position in order to start on the more durable medium tyre. And chief among the tortoises is one Sebastian Vettel, who didn't look quite on the pole pace for once (though is better on race pace) and starts P9 having not set a lap time in the final part of qualifying. He isn't best in class though, as Jenson Button set a mark a gentleman's 31 seconds off the pole time, and thus starts ahead. Welcome to F1. But watching how it all plays out tomorrow will be fascinating, the 'hares' will have to pit early, which will likely leapfrog Vettel and others right into the action. But the problem is that Seb and the rest on his strategy will have to use the soft tyre at some point tomorrow, and that will likely create a headache.

More broadly, today provided the latest weight on the 'Mercedes upturn' side of the scales, rather than the 'false dawn' one. Of course, the matter is still in early days, and we need to exercise caution giving the multitude of false dawns at Brackley before (including one in the first three rounds of last year). But for now at least things continue to look good.

For Mark Webber however things could hardly have gone worse. He'll start P14 (at best, as he could be put to the back if the stewards decide to get pedantic) after the not small matter of running out of petrol in the second qualifying session. This of course will delight the conspiracy theorists, coming as it does right after Vettel ignoring team orders in Malaysia and the various controversies surrounding the two drivers' respective roles in the team. I don't believe for a second that there was any funny business. If nothing else, even if Red Bull was minded to sabotage Webber (and it's not) it wouldn't have done it in such a mind-numbingly obvious way. It just seems to be one of those thumping ironies that sport throws up from time to time.

And a couple of shout outs. Once again Jules Bianchi impressed, clearly heading the B Class and his best lap was just seven tenths over that of Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber. And he even claimed afterwards that his lap could have been better. And Daniel Ricciardo for the first time since Bahrain last year he reached the final part of qualifying, and after actually setting a proper lap time there he'll start in seventh. It's all timely too, given there's little secret that he (along with his stable mate Jean-Eric Vergne) is there as part of a Red Bull audition, and of course the probability of a Red Bull vacancy in 2014 has increased exponentially over the last three weeks.

Tomorrow's race is unlikely to disappoint. Recent Shanghai races rarely have. And this time the grid is fascinatingly poised, there are plenty of contending hares and a few are taking the more tortoise approach that could throw them right into the mix. There are all sorts of themes and strategies, and it's not at all clear who and what will prevail at the end of it all. And it'll likely remain unclear until the very point that the chequered flag falls.

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