Saturday, 2 November 2013

Abu Dhabi Qualifying: Webber's fitting farewell

Now, there was the fitting send off.

During Mark Webber's long goodbye from F1 talk of whether the hard charger would get such an apt farewell - one last great performance in his final act - before he goes off to drive his Porsche has danced in the air. It then gathered tempo as the destination of the championships to his team mate Sebastian Vettel and to his collective Red Bull became an inevitability - effectively and then actually.

Mark Webber took a stunning and unexpected pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
But today we had it, as in the final, vital throes of today's qualifying session for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Webber only went and nailed it. At the very last moment he rode his Bull at its very outer limit and sneaked under what appeared an unbeatable time by Vettel. Seb it transpired had made a small mistake at turn 1 on his own final run, and thus Webber stayed on top. But despite this - and unlike in Suzuka when Mark beat Seb to pole after the latter had a KERS problem, something that Mark acknowledged - this time it felt like Mark genuinely got one up on his team mate as well as on everyone else.

And what's more he did in Seb's back yard effectively: the Yas Marina track is one that Vettel specialises at; one that Webber often struggles to get within howling distance of him on. But Webber absolutely pulled it out, and even could be said to have out-Sebbed Seb. Webber was a joy to watch as he flicked the car with real commitment in the twisty final sector of the lap, the sector on which Seb most of the time cannot be touched (with the one exception of by Lewis Hamilton).

And we've been here plenty of times before. For all that we can talk, as Helmut Marko did, about the Australian's (in)ability to extract his very best every time, when he's really on it simply no one - including F1's most haughty figures - can live with him. But even among these high tide watermarks it seemed this pole lap was up there; perhaps even bettered all of them.

Furthermore, Webber had to work to get to where he did: 'Not the smoothest path I would say to the start of Q2' said Webber afterwards, 'also Q1 we were not I would say electric, but then getting into the groove we changed the car quite a bit with the front wing level and things like that as the session went on, and I got more and more comfortable. I knew I had to work on certain sections of the track which Sebastian had been doing a good job there already, so I had to try and match him there and keep the areas where I was still doing pretty a good job. So overall happy with the pole, it's a good lap on a track which in the past has not been super-invigorating for me in terms of layout let's say. But we certainly enjoyed the quali today.'

Sebastian Vettel still is the race favourite
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb, as is his way, and despite this year's big prize being his, was disappointed afterwards, apologising to his team for the error while his head movements after he crossed the line spoke a thousand words. He remained gracious afterwards though: 'I think Mark did a very good lap so congratulations to him. I think I should have done a little bit better but I don't know if it would have been enough. So as a fact he deserved to be on pole today.'

With pole, it would have been almost impossible to see Seb stopped tomorrow. With a front row he remains the race favourite. But Webber starting ahead (assuming he can get off the line OK) can be said to make things a bit more interesting.

It also didn't turn out to be the Red Bull demonstration run that most anticipated. Not quite anyway, as Mercedes stepped up and looked for much of the qualifying hour to have Red Bull-troubling pace. As it was, in Q3 the Red Bulls turned their amps up to 11 (or rather put new soft tyres on) and the Mercs couldn't react, the pace gap in the end being around half a second. Still, the Silver Arrows taped up the second row, and it seemed a good day for getting one up on Yas Marina-specialising team mates as Nico Rosberg did just that by qualifying third ahead of Lewis. He was aided by Lewis spinning on his final effort, when he looked set to get third at least. But still, Nico was on or even quicker than Lewis's pace for a lot of the hour, and not a lot of drivers do that.

Nico Rosberg was content to be best of the rest
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico was clear though that the silver cars couldn't realistically muster more than token annoyance to the Bulls: 'I'm pleased with the result, third place, best of the rest, which is our target for this weekend. It's nice to annoy the Red Bulls a little bit but in the end they were just too quick again'.

It's also all well-timed for the Mercs given the three-way battle for second place in the constructors' standings, Lotus being behind and Ferrari far behind.

Then we have the infamous Kimi Raikkonen, getting a timely bounceback on his intra-team yardstick Romain Grosjean, and indeed performing well in its own terms, by qualifying fifth. It indicates that perhaps Kimi needs to have a conspicuous falling-out with his team every time, but a more likely explanation is that he was allowed to use the shorter-wheelbase car this weekend, which is more to his liking. 'For sure it's part of it' said the Finn about his new-but-old car, 'I can drive more in my style'.

Grosjean seemed rater subdued, complaining about his car's handling, and will start eighth, four tenths slower.

Sergio Perez today continued his
improved form of last week
Credit: Octane Photography
Behind them Sergio Perez continued well on his improved showing in India, getting into the top ten with the fifth fastest time, which just so happened to be four tenths and eight places better than that of his slightly bewildered team mate Jenson Button. Daniel Ricciardo had a similar time of it, getting into Q3 with the sixth fastest time. As it was, neither could quite match it in the final session and Perez starts ninth, Ricciardo tenth.

And Nico Hulkenberg qualified sixth. Once again performing brilliantly, to the point that one almost gets bored pointing the fact out...

Ferrari as predicted had a rather stinky time of it. Felipe Massa squeaked into Q3 and will start in eighth. The partial trouble is that in so doing Fernando Alonso missed out, continuing recent qualifying tepidness, and will start in 11th, having a snap of oversteer at turn seven on a crucial lap that potentially cost him progress. He has the tiniest crumb of comfort that he'll be the first on the grid to have a free selection of tyres for tomorrow, as well as that the last time he started from there he won. You'll get long odds on that happening again this time, but he should still progress up the order.

Whatever is the case, it looks like the race for first will be one between two guys in the same car, the standard-bearing Red Bull. But what may be vital is that, for once, the 'other' Red Bull looks like he'll be making a race of it. And you only need two cars to make a race. Two cars at the sharp doesn't half make a difference compared with just having the one.

UPDATE: Just when you thought that things were looking up for Kimi Raikkonen, his Lotus failed a front floor deflection test in post-qualifying scrutineering, which means he's been excluded from qualifying and shunted to start tomorrow's race at the back of the grid (everyone behind moving up a slot). Lotus offered the same defence as when Romain Grosjean's Lotus failed the same test after Hungary's qualifying session - that the floor was broken on a kerb - but this was the downfall. The stewards concluded that to fail one floor deflection test may be regarded as a misfortune, to fail two looks like carelessness, and that the team should have since modified the car to prevent a repeat. More details here.

And in other news, Lewis Hamilton's spin was down to a suspension failure, while Grosjean's lack of qualifying pace was explained by a gearbox problem.

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