Saturday 5 April 2014

Sakhir Qualifying: In the Nic of time

It felt a lot like Nico Rosberg needed that. Yes, he leads the drivers' table already by a gaping 18 points, and has access to a set of wheels that just about every F1 driver would crawl the length of the pit lane on broken glass to have. But as ever in F1 don't conclude based only on the topline. Today the pressure was on Nico; today he needed to strike back; today he did.

A week ago in Sepang Nico was taken to the cleaners by his team mate Lewis Hamilton, and was so in a style that looked a lot like that would be the way of things. And in the early parts of the Bahrain gathering's running the evidence was that this round would be a simple continuation. The Mercs were far ahead, and of the two Lewis seemed capable every time of dipping under Nico's best by a tenth of a second or more.

Nico Rosberg took a timely pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
Qualifying started just like that too, but then in the second part for the first time in what seemed a good while Nico beat Lewis's mark by a tenth or so. And then in the final, vital part in their opening efforts he did it again; by even further this time, out-doing his intra-team rival by three tenths. Out for the final runs with the pressure on, the rug was pulled from under the battle early. Lewis over-clubbed it into turn one, locked his tyres, went wide, thus deciding the order of the front row there and then. Nico's engineer summed up the vital facts to his charge with sheer sang-froid: 'Lewis has gone off, your position is safe. Pole position, well done'.

It all felt highly timely for Nico too, even with the considerations outlined at the start of this report. Had Lewis whipped him this weekend too you felt even this early the Englishman would have had rather a lot of what in American politics they like to call 'The Big Mo'. And in F1 as much as anything such momentum can be very difficult to arrest. This year may yet turn out to be a Mercedes benefit, but Nico today showed that it won't necessarily be a Lewis Hamilton one.

Nico was in good spirits for the race too: 'It's a whole different story tomorrow...but I'm confident. I did some good runs yesterday on the high fuel, so I'm confident I can stay ahead'.

Lewis meanwhile retained his dignity: 'Can't always get it right; congratulations to Nico, he had a really good lap'.

We can think of F1 right now as being divided into two distinct groups; the Mercs and the rest. And heading the non-Merc class once again was the amazing Daniel Ricciardo. 'It's the best anyone else can do aside from the two guys alongside me (the two Mercedes drivers)', said the Australian, everyone knowing what he meant, 'so I'm really pleased'.

Daniel Ricciardo impressed once again
Photo: Octane Photography
It is a track on which the Red Bull was expected to struggle, and Ricciardo's run is the latest evidence of his sheer speed as well as his willingness to go toe-to-toe with any amount of revered names that he shares a track with. Not least his team mate Sebastian Vettel, who once again had a frustrating time of it, dropping out in Q2. He said something about a downshift problem on the radio on his way back to the pits but such a malady wasn't too obvious from the on-board TV coverage. Yet Seb was gracious enough to admit afterwards that he hadn't got the potential out of his RB10: 'There was a bit more in the car that I couldn't get to, so not happy...'

Seb's P11 becomes a P10 start thanks to the final lingering hammer blow of Ricciardo's 'unsafe release' in last week's Malaysia race. On top of then losing a lap in the botched stop, then getting a penalty, today he had to add ten to wherever his best got him in qualifying. All for something that was hardly his fault. You can have sympathy for the FIA, given the howling that followed the unsafe release of Mark Webber in the Nurburgring last year, but this triple-whammy punishment set in place in response to that now in practice feels a lot like the pendulum has swung much too far in the draconian direction. Perhaps it shows the limitations of reacting, and feeling that you have to be seen to be reacting, to individual events.

It was a good day for Mercedes engines too, with seven out of the eight benefiting from these power units getting into the top 10 - expected given the long straights give them plenty of opportunity to stretch their legs. And as anticipated behind the works team there were strong showings from Williams and Force India. Valtteri Bottas's P4 coverts to starting third tomorrow, while next up will be a certain Sergio Perez.

If the analysis of the Force India's running so far this weekend is anything to go by then Perez could be well-placed to fill the bottom step of the podium tomorrow. And if the Mercs have reliability trouble then he could go even higher. As for Bottas we'll finally get to see what he and his FW36 are made off starting in a representative grid slot.

Sergio Perez was another to achieve a timely
qualifying result
Photo: Octane Photography
It was a good qualifying session for timely results for certain individuals. A bit like Rosberg, Perez was one you felt rather needed this bounce back, in his case after a rather tepid first couple of rounds wherein his stable mate Nico Hulkenberg cemented his much-admired status. As for the Hulk himself he was made angry as he was another to drop out in Q2 following an error on his final run (ensuring he - improbably - was the one Merc runner not to get into Q3). He'll start in eleventh.

While Kimi Raikkonen was another to make good on things in a timely fashion and will start in fifth, after practice sessions wherein he appeared to make retrograde steps following his apparent Malaysia improvement (thus making his experience here one of Malaysia in reverse). Fernando Alonso meanwhile was impeded by a curious loss of power, and he'll start in ninth.

Behind the Silver Arrows locking out the top two things are in fact pretty close; indeed in Q2 but seven tenths covered the best of Ricciardo in P3 and of Jean-Eric Vergne in P14. There should be stuff worth watching tomorrow therein especially as a few cars look to be starting a bit lower than they should be.

But up ahead it once again appears that the only stuff going on will be the Mercedes vs. each other vs. reliability. The team's Executive Director Toto Wolff on TV after qualifying noted that 'it looked comfortable today, there's nothing more to add to that...tomorrow reliability is the main issue'.  We know what you mean Toto, but you missed one thing. Thankfully for the rest of us in addition we've got the intrigue of whether this time it will be Nico or Lewis that is the one to prevail.

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