Saturday 21 June 2014

Red Bull Ring Qualifying: Massa and Williams back in a familiar place

F1's return to Austria after 11 years away, and very unusually returning to a track not a lot different to the one left, meant that there was a lot of 'long time, no see' about this Grand Prix weekend. And today's qualifying session was entirely in keeping with it.

Felipe Massa claimed a surprise,
but highly popular, pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
For the first time of the 2014 season a Mercedes did not claim pole position. Indeed, there won't even be one on the front row. For the first time since 2012 a Williams will head the grid, and if we don't include that case which was aided by a disqualification, it's the first since at the Nurburgring in 2005. For the first time since Germany in 2003 moreover the Williams team has locked out the front row.

And for the first time since the final round of 2008, the first since his near-fatal accident in Hungary the following year, the first time in 94 races, it was one Felipe Massa who claimed the pole position.

It's fair to say that almost no one saw this coming. Although the morning's free practice had an unusual result - Valtteri Bottas in the Williams top ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg down in fifth - few read too much into that. The Mercedes it was thought were playing around with set-up, and would surely reassert themselves when it really mattered. Indeed the evidence of Friday was that they were further ahead of the rest than ever. Some even spoke of the two silver cars forming an A Class with the rest forming a B...

When the quali hour got underway the Mercs were indeed back on top, but the surprises weren't over, as it appeared that if there was going to be an irritant to them it would be Bottas, not Massa, that would provide it. Throughout he clung to the Mercs' coattails - getting very close indeed as all switched to the supersofts on which the Mercs did not appear quite so potent - with Massa apparently not able to stay with him. But when it came to the crunch at the last Massa pipped him by a scant nine one hundredths of a second to top the pile.

Once again, in the drivers' title reckoning
things fell Nico Rosberg's way
Photo: Octane photography
Adding to the echoes of the past around the place, afterwards the emotion of Massa's achievement was tangible with the man himself as he spoke slowly and deliberately, apparently not yet able to fully comprehend what he'd just done: his first pole in a while, as well as since his crash; that he just like his team were reasserting themselves after too long away; and today both made good after a 2014 wherein perhaps they weren't getting the results that they should.

'So happy what's happened today with us, I mean our team, it was such a great moment, it was already a long time when I had my last pole position...' said Felipe.

'I hope that this is just the beginning of some great possibilities to be here again...There are similar feelings from what I feel and for what Williams feel'.

As for the haughty Mercs, a lot like in Monaco they trod on each other's tails at the business part of Q3, though unlike then it was irrefutably down to cock-up and not conspiracy. The stewards (finally) were clamping down hard on cars exceeding the track limits, and in Lewis's first effort while he on the timing screen glowed purple and looked like he was cruising to the top, he got a swapper on at turn eight at the end of the lap which scratched his (as a result not very special anyway) time. Then on his next and final effort amazingly at turn two his rear locked under braking and he spun properly. Lewis, astonishingly, therefore has to start in P9 tomorrow having not set a time in final part of qualifying.

Lewis Hamilton got it wrong
Photo: Octane Photography
And his spin resulted in something spookily redolent on Monaco and all that, as the soon-on-the-scene Nico had to get out of the throttle due to the subsequent yellow flags. He felt he wouldn't be able to claw back the resultant lost two tenths and thus abandoned the effort.

This means that he'll start in third tomorrow, but from the championship angle it's yet another strike to Nico over Lewis, with the former in addition to 22 championship points also now having six places on the starting grid on his stable mate. Do you ever get the impression that in 2014 things are having a habit of falling his way?

Behind Fernando Alonso steered clear on the drama to slot his car in fourth, with the F14 T's upgrades seemingly having benefit, at least in his hands. He survived an earlier adventure over the grass in Q2 though.

An irony is that the Red Bull Ring really doesn't suit the Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo starts behind Alonso in fifth, while Sebastian Vettel didn't even make the final part of quali due in part to a slightly messy last Q2 effort. He'll start instead in a rather subdued P13. And him qualifying behind Ricciardo is threatening to became unsurprising; it's now six times in eight 2014 rounds that it's happened.

Fernando Alonso ghosted
 into fourth place
Photo: Octane Photography
Today's is a qualifying outcome that sets us up beautifully for tomorrow's race also. Williams it is thought has focussed on quick tyre warm up and it remains to be seen if over a race stint it'll have an unpleasant flip side. While the Mercs are mighty on the soft tyre that will be used for the most part. Perhaps with this in mind Felipe reckoned even with his pole that the race will be 'difficult'.

But still the Grove cars hold track position, and with Merc units in the back won't be easily extracted from their places. Massa noted that whatever is the case where he is out front is 'the best place to be'.

Lewis meanwhile will likely slice through the pack in double-quick time, though equally will need to have his wits about him so to avoid the many bear traps that are around when other cars are nearby.

But all that can wait until tomorrow. F1 is far from perfect as we know - indeed we often are reminded of such - but even 2014-style it can never be said to be predictable. Not entirely anyway. Its capacity for recrimination, particularly acute this campaign, has too left rather a nasty taste in a few mouths. But today's events hardly could have been a sweeter tonic. It is hard to imagine any team, or driver, that commands more affection than do Williams and Massa. The Austrian Grand Prix qualifying session was a rare occurrence wherein good things happened to good people. It even happens sometimes in this game.

Today, no was faster than Felipe. And we all understood that message.

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