Saturday 19 April 2014

Shanghai Qualifying: Continuing the themes

Shanghai is a city evolving at a supersonic rate. To the point that when the F1 fraternity pitches up each year it finds there an awful lot that is almost beyond recognition compared with what was 12 months previously. But today's qualifying session at the Shanghai International Circuit wasn't in keeping with the city just down the road. There wasn't a lot that was new; instead it seemed a continuation of various themes already familiar in the fledgling 2014 campaign.

Lewis Hamilton - on top again in the wet conditions
Photo: Octane Photography
For the third qualifying session from four in 2014 rain fell, pretty much for the duration. But just like before it didn't make much difference to the outcome, not for Lewis Hamilton anyway. Three times the rain has fallen when it matters on a Saturday; three times Lewis has claimed pole position, leaving all others far behind.

This was the pattern of the whole of China's quali hour - and further repeating the pattern of before Lewis had clear pace in hand on everyone, which extends in the wet, where his almost freakish bravery, commitment and car control can be put to best use. And sure enough come the end of today's session he had a positively mammoth six tenths of a second on the rest.

This included his teammate Nico Rosberg, who in perhaps another developing theme for this year was in these treacherous conditions at least left gasping by Lewis's pace. He never looked capable of running with him today, and spun at the last corner of his final effort as if to emphasise the fact. By this point though Lewis was cruising back to the pits to dry off - pole assuredly his.

And he was rightly satisfied with his efforts: '(You get) definitely the most (satisfaction) when it's raining. It is so slippery out there, trying to find the grip, not making mistakes and really pulling it together, especially with these guys (the Red Bull drivers) pushing you. It was a tough session, I really enjoyed it, the car was feeling great'.

And just like those previous times when the elements have made themselves felt on a Satuday the colours of the next guy up was exactly the same. Once again the fine-handling but under-powered Red Bulls used the wet stuff on track to sail all the way to front-running waters. They managed to split the Mercs, being the two next to up after Lewis and both ahead of the other Merc belonging to Rosberg.

Daniel Ricciardo amazed us yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
Another pattern developing already in this new campaign is that Daniel Ricciardo is just refusing to quit amazing us; he did it again today, snatching second place on the starting grid with a stellar late effort. We could see what he meant when he claimed on his way back to the pits that 'there wasn't anything left in that'.

Lewis appears set fair for the race, even though he admitted subsequently that, given the rain, he hadn't been able to ascertain how effective overnight set-up changes had been in the dry conditions which are expected tomorrow. While the Red Bulls' long-run pace yesterday was impressive, it still wasn't quite with the Mercs, particularly not in the early laps. And even if they can stay with the Silver Arrows it's not at all clear - given their straight line speed deficiency - how they can get ahead.

Even Sebastian Vettel noted that 'in wet conditions we have a bit more of a chance, in dry conditions they're (the Mercedes) still quite quick and a little bit too far away'. But he remained positive: 'We'll try. I think we're in the best positions to try and give them a very hard time tomorrow'. Lewis however noted that the weather isn't too much of a consideration for him: 'we'll have a good race either way'.

Rosberg generally was a little bewildered at his rather scrappy time of it today in his stable mate's distant wake: 'just generally not quick enough today, that was the main issue, and struggling on the brakes...trying a little bit too hard'. He still should progress tomorrow if it is indeed dry, and indeed sounded the happier with his lot yesterday when the rain stayed away. So perhaps all is not yet lost for him.

As has also been the way in wet qualifying sessions this year Fernando Alonso was next up after the Mercs and Bulls, pedalling hard to seize P5. The car didn't quite look as good in the wet today as it did in the dry yesterday, but Alonso's more positive that the car tomorrow in a dry race can get closer to the podium fight. 'Tomorrow hopefully in the first couple of laps we can keep this fifth position and go with the train with the leaders. Hopefully we'll be a little bit closer (to a podium finish) than what we've been in the last races. Fifteen days ago we were fighting for ninth and tenth and this is not enough. We know that Mercedes is probably out of reach in dry conditions but hopefully with Red Bull we are not too far (away).'

Kimi Raikkonen however had another day not being able to follow in Alonso's footsteps, and he missed out on Q3 altogether, upwards of a second slower than the guy across the garage. Both McLarens had their day ended at this point too, either driver bemoaning a lack of grip.

Jean-Eric Vergne is always one to watch in wet conditions
Photo: Octane Photography
In a rare variation from the norm the Williams showed up much better in wet conditions today than had been so before in this campaign, benefiting from new development pieces, and Felipe Massa will start sixth tomorrow with Valtteri Bottas next up.

'It's maybe the first race that we have some new pieces on the car and it works, and it shows a good improvement on the car' said Felipe afterwards. 'So it's pushing the factory I'm doing all the time...the car has good potential that we need try to use...It shows a good improvement on the car. It's still not great, it's still struggling on the rear but a lot less, so the rear is more stable so you can push more'. Both Williams pilots are also confident of improvement tomorrow.

Next was the ever-impressive Nico Hulkenberg, then the ever-impressive in the wet Jean-Eric Vergne, and the top ten was completed by Romain Grosjean.

Yes, you read that right, a Lotus made it to Q3. The E22 as we all know arrived in the 2014 season under-cooked, but we've seen incremental evidence that it's just about starting to catch up with itself.

But even though the weather is expected to fine up tomorrow for the race the continuation of familiar themes is likely to extend. The Mercedes will likely be untouchable, and while the battle between its two drivers will probably be close, Lewis Hamilton is set as the guy to beat.

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