Saturday 15 March 2014

Melbourne Qualifying: Rain clouds have a silver lining

We all know the one about pre-season testing and being cautious in interpreting it. And with good reason, due to a variety of factors. But nevertheless by the time it's over the jungle drums emerging from the F1 fraternity give us some idea of what's really going on, and despite its image actually is right more often than not. One beat that emerged louder and more persistent than any other from testing was that the Mercedes cars were well on top. And indeed more than anything that was the story of the year's first qualifying session. Not even the Melbourne weather doing its worst during the session and dumping rain from partway through did much to alter this outcome.

Lewis Hamilton snatched pole at the last
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And of the two Merc pilots it was strike one to Lewis Hamilton, looking confident in and out of the car finally armed with a machine that goes like him - as well as having the benefit of crossing the line just before the clock reached zero, exactly want you want when the track is drying - he put his flair and bravery into time-honoured practice by snatching pole, more than three tenths under Nico Rosberg's mark. For Nico himself, an earlier off meant he wasn't able to similarly benefit from such fine timing and he will start third instead.

'We didn't get it quite right...third is OK, it could have been better...' said the man himself, appropriately. Lewis described his effort as 'very tough'. It didn't look that way however.

Come rain or shine it seemed the Merc was still far ahead of the rest. Well, far ahead of the rest apart from one, the only pilot to vary from the script was the amazing Red Bull big team new act Daniel Ricciardo. Throughout the qualifying hour - including early on when the track was dry - his car seemed perpetually being stuck near or at the top of the timing screen; and he looked a particular threat to the Mercs' preponderance as the rain intensified. For the most delightful and fleeting of moments - and using inters when full wets looked the tyre to have - when the clock at the end was on zero Ricciardo grabbed the pole slot, only for Lewis a few metres back to snatch it for himself almost immediately.

It didn't quell the locals' cheers too much however; splitting the mighty Mercs is quite the achievement right now. It feels a lot like a vindication of Ricciardo and of the Red Bull team's decision to take a punt on him; those who claimed that he was signed merely as a lackey have gone rather quiet. Ricciardo, with probable understatement, declared himself 'pretty pleased right now'. Perhaps particularly when you do such on a day that your mighty world champion team mate is nowhere.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed on his way to P2
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
Yes, that's Sebastian Vettel I'm talking about. Almost unfathomably and for reasons not yet entirely explained he qualified in a mere P13 - which becomes a P12 start thanks to a gearbox penalty for Valtteri Bottas. The Aussie locals liked that one too. And if we needed a graphic demonstration that F1 2014-style was going to be different to before then it could not have done so as starkly. For Vettel, while he'll be encouraged by the RB10's general performance this weekend compared with expectations - certainly its reliability - this will be a sore one.

Seb was one of three world champions to be bundled out in Q2, and beaten by (younger) team mates who made it to the top ten. Jenson Button too was one in this boat, whose P11 converts into a P10 start. We sometimes assume that such moments call for the cool heads of experience, but today it was the raw abandon of youth that was rewarded. And none more so than for Kevin Magnussen, who continued the promise shown in testing with a fine and resolute run to P4. It's the highest qualifying slot for a debutant since Lewis himself at this same venue in 2007, who also started P4. And the Dane summed his achievement up appropriately afterwards with almost Hakkinen-esque restrained and clipped prose: 'really happy, difficult conditions, never been on this track in the wet...'.

The Toro Rossos came alive in the wet
and Jean-Eric Vergne will start sixth
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
And Daniil Kvyat also showed up well for the debutants, getting into the top ten and earning eighth spot on the grid. Toro Rosso's had its problems in pre-season, but the car came alive in the wet conditions and Jean-Eric Vergne - always one to watch in such conditions - did even better and will start sixth.

Completing the inauspicious champion trio was Kimi Raikkonen, who in his (second) Ferrari debut has looked ill-at-ease behind the wheel all weekend, as well as not really on the same page as his new yardstick in Fernando Alonso. And Kimi gave it all an almost appropriate crescendo: binning it at the end of Q2 after losing the car on acceleration. He'll start tomorrow between Jenson and Seb.

As for Alonso he hustled the F14 T in that way we've come to expect and a P5 start is his reward. It's not yet clear where Ferrari sits: topline practice times were fairly encouraging; race simulations slightly less so. Whatever is the case it's clear it has time to make up on the Merc, and in a season wherein you feel it can barely afford to fail. Alonso as usual though looks like he'll sell his hide the dearest of all.

The rain wasn't good news for Williams, and Massa and Bottas ended up a mere P9 and P10 respectively. Though that this is considered a disappointment is an indicator of how far the team has come in a short time. Its personnel would have crawled the length of the pit lane on broken glass for such an outcome last season.

Fernando Alonso will start in fifth
Credit: Alex Comerford / CC
The opening qualifying session of a season often is an experience - to borrow from Warren Buffet - akin to the tide going out and it being revealed who's been swimming without trunks. And in another outcome that chimed with the rhythm of testing, Lotus is well and truly running around in its starkers at the moment. The team that won here 12 months ago now fills the back row, and the E22 looks every inch a car that by the team's confession is a month behind where it should be.

Since the new cars have debuted some have spoken of the time that rain first fell on an F1 weekend with a sort of hushed reverence: the greatly increased torque plus the relative lack of wet testing running in the new machines (one morning in Jerez, wherein not everyone circulated) would likely create carnage a few thought. As it was we got rain in the opening act: the cars did slither and slide on acceleration, but most too managed to keep the car out of the scenery (though not all, as mentioned). The radical tilting of power and grip, with the driver's contribution plain for all to see, is a welcome shift.

But the opening qualifying session of a long campaign also is much more the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Especially so in the new formula and even more so in the immediate term as with fuel mileage to be considered tomorrow the disconnect between qualifying and the race will likely be much greater than what we've grown used to. More broadly the rain of qualifying has rather shuffled the order, while the start line launch of the Renault-powered cars was a concern during testing. Things could look very different in 24 hours' time.

But one thing you suspect is likely to remain the same - that of the Mercedes well on top. 'It's still about reliability tomorrow' said its Executive Director Toto Wolff afterwards, and indeed it is; another lesson of testing is that right now not a single team can take it for granted. But by the same token it's likely the only thing that can stop Mercedes.

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