Saturday 12 October 2013

Suzuka Qualifying: Webber's redemption

F1 does this. Just at the very point you think you can say with certainty what's going to happen, it doesn't. In advance almost no one could see past the Red Bulls for Suzuka supremacy, and almost by extension that for Sebastian Vettel. Today the Red Bulls did indeed tape the front row for the Japanese Grand Prix - which was expected. But it'll be Mark Webber who will start ahead of the two - which was not expected.

Mark Webber took his first pole of the year
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, you could argue that Sebastian Vettel had an imperfect time of it - with a KERS failure in Q3 as well as missing much of FP3 this morning with a similar problem - indeed Webber acknowledged as much. But Webber was more than close enough to take advantage which is all that you can ask.

Always honest, Webber described it as 'a little bit of a hollow pole position', given Seb's problems, but he's probably doing himself a disservice, at least to some extent. And Seb, to his credit, didn't seek to make excuses.

'We had a problem this morning but I don't think it made a difference' said Seb. 'Congratulations to Mark, I think he did a very good lap. We did have an issue in qualifying but I'm not a big fan of "without this, with this, if this..."'

Still, a front row slot and setting a time within a tenth or so of Webber and doing so without KERS can only be described as a worthy effort in adversity.

And it felt a lot like redemption for the popular Webber, in a swansong F1 year which has been one of frustration on a few levels, and recent weeks wherein he's often seemed to stop but a syllable short of admitting that he can't wait to get out of here and grab his Porsche keys, today was finally a day when everything went right for him. Amazingly, it's also the first time in 2013 that he will start ahead of his team mate. Mark was justifiably pleased: 'We all enjoy driving here...I'm happy to be on pole, you got to grab the opportunities when you can...very very nice farewell for me to have pole here in my last attempt at Suzuka on a really phenomenal circuit. I'll never forget the first sector...our profession is all about that'.

Sebastian Vettel seems well placed, after a very good
qualifying effort in adversity
Photo: Octane Photography
We now look ahead to the race, and as is usually the way there is the vexed question of whether Webber can get off the line cleanly. But if he can end lap one on top it'll be fascinating to see how things proceed from there. Getting ahead of him will not be the work of a moment, for Seb or anyone else. Even with the championship for Seb possibly to be clinched tomorrow team tactics would seem unlikely, given it's hardly critical. The boss Christian Horner meanwhile with his usual poker face described the race simply as being 'business as usual, just another race....(we) allow them to race but obviously they both race for the team'. Clear as mud.

As mentioned, in recent times the Red Bull has been the car to beat at Suzuka (indeed you have to go back to 2006 for the last time that it wasn't, albeit via a 2007-2008 Fuji sojourn). Those looking for a bit more of a jumbled time of it had flickering cause for hope early on in the qualifying session, as the others daintily danced around the ring and the times looked close. But halfway through all (to borrow from Tony Blair) met a big clunking fist, and a familiar one, as the Bulls reasserted themselves with times far under what anyone had done before, and with Seb as usual the quicker. It stayed that way until the end, the only variation from the script being Seb's KERS failing.

Behind the Bulls we have the familiar faces of Lewis Hamilton and then Romain Grosjean on row two, both of whom have gone well in qualifying in recent times. And Grosjean in particular will be worth watching tomorrow, being almost alone able to cling to Seb's coat tails in Korea a week ago.

Nico Hulkenberg impressed yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
Then things get a bit jumbled. Felipe Massa did well by getting his Ferrari up to fifth, followed by Nico Rosberg. And Nico Hulkenberg in his Sauber showed up very well once again, this time by qualifying in seventh. It's simply the latest demonstration that if Lotus doesn't sign him up to its 2014 driving staff then there's something seriously wrong.

Only then do we get to future Ferrari team mates Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen: languishing down in eighth and ninth respectively. In Alonso's case the result seemed curious as he looked pretty competitive in qualifying up until the final throes. He described his grid slot simply of reflecting where he is in the scheme of things this weekend, but he may be another doing himself a disservice. As for Kimi it continues a pattern wherein he's been off Grosjean's pace in recent weeks. But his way in the last two races has been to ghost forward, one way or another. You'd imagine Alonso will make progress too. And so long as he finishes and doesn't lose ground he'll at least keep the championship alive, however tenuously.

But then again, the big moral we should take from the Suzuka qualifying story is that no one can say with certainty what lays ahead. Maybe we should just try to enjoy it.

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