Saturday 11 May 2013

Barcelona Qualifying: Hey Ho Silver

It's now happened in the last three rounds. But it still seems rare enough to be considered a surprise. Yes, it'll again be the colour silver at the front of tomorrow's starting grid, and this time it'll be silver in one and two. Mercedes today locked out the front row for the Spanish Grand Prix.

And also against expectations it is Nico Rosberg who is ahead of the two. Just as with his team's efforts, even though it's his second pole on the spin him coming out on top of his intra-team conflict with the mighty Lewis Hamilton also seems unexpected. But it's further evidence that after years of confusion on the matter Nico might well be all that after all. Perhaps we should try to start to get used to it.

Nico Rosberg takes pole - not so much of a surprise
Credit: Morio / CC
And yet, it still all feels rather like F1's equivalent of the warm up act. The expectation tomorrow is that the Mercs will clear the stage before too long to allow the star turns of Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso to appear for the headline act. That's certainly what the evidence of Bahrain suggests where Rosberg started on pole (though Hamilton's trajectory in that race was upward), and the silver cars' race simulation runs in Friday practice were not encouraging. Nico further seemed to admit after qualifying that he expects the same himself, stating that 'the race will be a whole different thing'. The main trouble is that the thing that makes them good in qualifying, ability to generate heat in their tyres quickly, particularly in the rears, tends to be a vice over a race stint.

The three star turns mentioned, probably the 2013's most consistent race day pace setters, the three guys that in all probability will battle for the destiny of this year's drivers' title, are line astern next up in the grid order. All have strong claims to coming out on top tomorrow, all looked strong on race pace on Friday, all are formidable competitors. Perhaps Kimi starting in the mix (in fourth) rather than with his usual ground to make up looks particularly menacingly-placed.

And because it appears so close to call tomorrow's race could well be decided in the margins: the start, a smartly timed pit stop. Indeed one major discriminator could be early in the race with the time lost in clearing the Mercedes. Even with F1's madcap new rules passing around the Barcelona track remains difficult; Alonso holding off quicker cars for a fair chunk of the 2011 race demonstrated this. As does the fact that you have to go back to 1996 for the last win here starting from off the front row (as mentioned though, few expect that record to withstand tomorrow's challenge).

Is Kimi Raikkonen best-placed for tomorrow's race?
Credit: Morio / CC
After Seb, Kimi and Fernando (in that order) on the grid we have their teammates in reverse order. Felipe Massa rides shotgun for Nando, a grand total of 0.001 slower than him (though he subsequently got a three-place penalty for blocking Mark Webber), then we have Romain Grosjean and Mark Webber, the latter of whom will likely be disappointed with this result in a weekend wherein some people with weak powers of prediction thought he might do well.

And you may have noticed a team not mentioned so far. Even a round synonymous with bringing big technical upgrades has not brought the McLarens much closer to the front, indeed if anything they look a bit further away. And the implications of this appear lost on no one: the drivers have started to talk like their championship chances are gone (not much of a revelation you might say but it is a revelation that they're not caring to hide the fact), the team's management is talking that there won't be quick fixes and more worryingly suggestions that the team is having correlation problems with its simulation tools are beginning to swirl. And we saw the bother Ferrari had, and had for an extended period, from that.

But still it was another encouraging show for Sergio Perez, who followed on from his strong (if sometimes lairy) run in Bahrain by qualifying six places ahead of his team mate Jenson Button (he starts P8 with Jenson P14), and his Q2 time was six tenths of a second quicker.

Yet the likelihood is that they, like the Mercs, will be a side show in tomorrow's Spanish round. Instead we'll most probably have Vettel, Raikkonen and Alonso with weapons drawn, never likely to have much space between them. Worth watching, in other words.

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