Saturday, 7 September 2013

Monza Qualifying: Seb's calm in the eye of the storm

The story is just like that last time out at Spa: in 2013, even when we all think Red Bull's going to weak, it's strong. We really should know better by now, we've had plenty of wake up calls before after all.

Usually when the F1 season's calendar is published the Red Bull team puts a pin in the date of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza marking 'damage limitation'. The car's not good down the long straights. The team's never got the knack of the required low downforce spec. Well, the Milton Keynes lot has only gone and proved us wrong again.

In an unlikely place, Vettel stormed to pole
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
Yes, today's qualifying session ensures that the Red Bull team has the front row all to itself for the start of tomorrow's Italian Grand Prix, having looked clearly the fastest thing around the rapid Monza track from the point a wheel was first turned yesterday. And even of the two Sebastian Vettel looked to be on another level, and so it proved as he claimed pole position as he liked. With a 46 point gap on the rest in the championship table his rivals were already seriously running out of time to haul him back, and no doubt plenty will be asking that if they can't get points back on Seb here then where can they? When it comes to where the honours will go this year, after today's outcome the fat lady is no doubt warming up her vocal chords.

And it gets even better for Seb, as while he out front was doing that thing he usually does there was something of a whirlwind taking place all around him. His three closest, and let's face it only realistic (however remote), challengers for the drivers' championship all, for various reasons, didn't have their troubles to seek in today's qualifying hour.

Fernando Alonso - a source of much chatter
Photo: Octane Photography
None less than Fernando Alonso. With a Ferrari which as usual looked a more competitive proposition than usual at Monza he in the first two parts of qualifying looked a pretty good bet to be best of the rest behind Vettel. It didn't happen in the event, as he sank to fifth place, pipped by Mark Webber, the amazing Nico Hulkenberg, and Alonso's stable mate Felipe Massa. And rather like Seb's pole it had a strong whiff of history repeating, wherein Ferrari tried to have Massa's slipstream help Alonso down the straights, and once again it looked a lot like the team outsmarted itself.

Alonso was positive in front of the media afterwards, but it seems before that he said something unflattering over the radio to his team on his way back to the pits (though at the time of writing it's not clear exactly what - every translation I read seems to be slightly different, as well as that the context of the words isn't clear). It remains to be seen what comes of that, though in a team as potentially sensitive as Ferrari the stakes are high, as well as that it's all not long after the post-Hungary Luca Montezemolo public barb which indicated that not all was well down Maranello way. Still, assuming he's not been given his jotters by tomorrow the evidence is Alonso will be one of the quickest out there, and should make progress.

Nico Hulkenberg - a stunning and timely third place
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico Hulkenberg's qualifying run was stunning, finishing with the fifth fastest time in Q2 before doing even better by claiming third fastest time when it really mattered. It was one of those outcomes that no one saw coming, least of all the Hulk himself. It's also well-timed, given 'who'll be driving where for 2014' discussions are in full swing by now. And it could hardly have been done in a better place given the identity of one of his most often-mentioned suitors...

It was a day for surprises, as both Toro Rossos and both McLarens, in addition to Hulkenberg, provided interloper services by making the top ten. In McLaren's case it continues improved recent form after reversing the most conspicuous problems with its MP4-28, while in the case of Toro Rosso one is put in mind of the fact that the Force Indias penned by current Faenza Technical Director James Key used to fly down the long Monza straights also, as did his Sauber C31 on view here last year. It seems he has the knack of creating cars that can speed through the air barely creating a ripple. And man of the moment Daniel Ricciardo has given us his latest demonstration that in terms of raw pace at least he's indeed a worthy recipient of the 2014 Red Bull drive, and will start tomorrow's race in seventh place.

Daniel Ricciardo once again showed his pace
Photo: Octane Photography
And those who fell out of the bed when everyone rolled over were unlikely: both Lotuses will start outside the top ten, Kimi Raikkonen in P11 and Romain Grosjean in P13. And between them on the grid we have the even less likely presence of Lewis Hamilton, the man who's had qualifying pretty much to himself in recent months. He was impeded by Adrian Sutil (doesn't F1 love to dish up these delicious ironies) at a vital moment but he also admitted that he simply 'didn't get a lap together'. All three, with a free choice of tyres for tomorrow, will take a small amount of encouragement however by what Sergio Perez achieved from a similar starting point in the race here last year.

But you feel that the fight for them, as for everyone else aside from Vettel, will be over second place at the very most. Of course, some forecasts have rain around tomorrow at race time, but while that may be the most likely avenue via which Seb will be stopped, even there you suspect there aren't too many reasons to think that will impede him especially. And we all recall what happened the last time it rained for an Italian Grand Prix...

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