Saturday, 24 August 2013

Spa Qualifying: Order out of chaos

Spa and rain go together - that we know. Spa and entertainment go together also. So to take it rationally Spa plus rain should equal a double dosage of entertainment. And that indeed is usually the way of it. It was very much so today.

Today's was the sort of action-packed wet-to-dry qualifying session that Spa seems to have provided who knows how many times before. But even among these, or among qualifying sessions seen anywhere anytime, it is hard genuinely to cite one as dramatic, as nerve-shredding, with as many twists.

Lewis Hamilton eventually left them trailing
Photo: Octane Photography
But somehow at the end of it all the haphazard session provided a rather un-haphazard result by recent standards. Lewis Hamilton seized his fourth pole position on the bounce, and with Sebastian Vettel next up it is the third time in a row that those two have shared the front row in that order. But you know what they say: don't judge a book by its cover.

Only Harold Pinter it seems does dramatic timing as well as Spa's micro-climate. Having stayed away all day, though never seeming far away, rain arrived minutes before the red light went out for the qualifying session's start. This gave us one of those sessions in Q1 that we know so well, wherein the track gradually dried, and drivers could be at the top of the times only to be in the drop zone before anyone knew it. In the end, the big names survived, but there were still upsets. The unlikely figure of Giedo van der Garde, as well as the two Marussia pilots, were those with the chutzpah to try slick tyres near the end, and all were rewarded with rare progress from Q1. The reward was particularly great in van der Garde's case as he ended up placed P3 in the first session, which furthermore set him up for a fine P14 on the starting grid. That will no doubt please the Dutch hordes who are in attendance at Spa to follow him. And it all meant that the two Toro Rossos and the two Williams, along with Chrlaes Pic and Esteban Guiterrez, left the stage early.

Giedo van der Garde was audacious
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
At this point, with the track dried, and it appeared that the fun was over and that we'd get a nice normal qualifying session after all. Times beat those seen in dry practice and Kimi Raikkonen edged out Fernando Alonso at the top. While Lewis Hamilton scraped out of Q2, by a scant 21 thousandths of a second. The significance of which would only achieve its full militation later.

As the Spa weather wasn't finished: it struck again, and this time with even more mischievous timing than before. Clouds gathered for the start of the final, vital, session, so all cars (well, all apart from a couple...) appeared on the track pronto in an attempt to set a time on dry tyres before the track got wetter. But such was the rain's force they had to abandon the effort and instead pit again immediately. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Paul di Resta pressed on, as he and his Force India team had decided to buck the trend by starting out Q3 on intermediates - and what do you know he went straight to the top of the timing screens. Massa tried something similar, but a little later and this crucial detail meant he couldn't match di Resta's best. Then as the established order slipped and slid on the inters as the rain came down further, and were unable to peg di Resta back, it looked like one of the sport's most unlikely, and most audacious, pole positions, was about to come to pass, as well as one reminiscent of Rubens Barrichello's debut pole at the same venue in not too dissimilar conditions in the Force India's forerunner team of Jordan in 1994.

Paul di Resta looked an unlikely pole-winner
Credit: Octane Photography
But it was not to be, as no fewer than two more twists awaited. First of all Nico Rosberg, always rapid in such conditions, pipped di Resta's time by a tenth. We thought that was that, but few noticed that the Red Bulls as well as that man Lewis Hamilton had started their final laps at the last gasp - them the only ones to do their timing better than even Spa's precipitation. Close to two minutes after Rosberg the three came over the line almost together. First Mark Webber took the pole, then a blink of an eye later Sebastian Vettel did, and then equally quickly Lewis took it for himself. Di Resta was shuffled down to fifth. Everyone had to draw breath.

Lewis exclaimed on his slowing down lap 'I can't believe it!', and he wasn't the only one. And he was as delighted as he was surprised: 'I can't remember the last time I crossed the line and had such a good feeling.' he said afterwards. He also raised some laughs by noting that he thought that his pole lap was no good, and assumed that he was only catching Vettel as he was on a slowing down lap. All things are relative I guess.

Lewis also doubted that he would have had the pace to contend for his latest pole without the weather's intervention: 'My guess would be maybe not. The Red Bull was looking particularly quick and also the Ferrari was looking quite quick in the dry conditions, so I'm not necessarily sure that we had the pace to be as fast as everyone today.'

Sebastian Vettel was pleased with second
Photo: Octane Photography
But whatever is the case with the car underneath him, we know that when the rain falls and grip beneath him is uncertain that Lewis can pull out all of his party pieces: bravery, lightning reflexes, improvisation, commitment. All of these and more were on show today.

Sebastian Vettel was pretty pleased afterwards with his second position on the grid, particularly with his two closest challengers in the table much further back, Raikkonen will start eighth and Alonso ninth. Both looked quick in the dry - indeed Alonso was very happy with the effect of Ferrari's latest upgrades - but both also were in the earlier, slower, group at the end of Q3, and managed to emerge at the bottom even of that pile. Still, their progress tomorrow will be fascinating, although back there they'll have to be more wary than usual of Spa's habitual risks of rain, La Source, and the like.

If the rain stays away then Seb looks very well-placed. And he doesn't often look too shabby in the wet either.

But the consensus is that more rain will hit the race tomorrow, so no one is betting the farm on there not being more twists yet before the prizes are handed out. It wouldn't be any other way at Spa.

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