Sunday 20 July 2014

Hockenheim Qualifying: Let's twist again

F1 in 2014 is the year of the plot twist it seems. Thought that Silverstone last time out had shifted the momentum? Wrong, as yesterday in Hockenheim's qualifying session it shifted back.

Nico Rosberg triumphed again in qualifying
Photo: Octane Photography
Whatever you may think of Lewis Hamilton, it's hard to deny that in the intra-Mercedes battle for the drivers' title this campaign he's had rather the bigger share of the bad luck. Two weeks ago, with Nico Rosberg dropping out in the Silverstone race leaving Lewis to help himself to a 25 point swing, seemed to go a long way to tilting the balance back.

But in Hockenheim qualifying the balance rebounded. There seemed little to choose between the two Merc pilots on pace for most of the weekend, and we all settled down for another close, edgy scrap for pole. But it ended quickly, as a racy looking Hamilton had a front brake disc fail on him at the Sachs Kurve in the first session, sending him into a violent smash in the barriers that left him sore in more than one sense. He already had a strong lap time but being unable to compete in Q2 or Q3 meant that P16 (which converted to P15 thanks to someone else's penalty) was his maximum.

It also made it the third qualifying session in a row where something has gone wrong for Lewis. He'll be hoping more than most that such things indeed come in threes. And unlike the previous ones no blame could be laid at his own door this time (Mercedes boss Toto Wolff commented afterwards that Lewis would have had to have been a Jedi to make the brake disc fail on him via psychology...).

Valtteri Bottas impressed again, and pushed Rosberg
all the way
Photo: Octane Photography
That wasn't quite pretty much that for a Nico run to pole however, as Valtteri Bottas in the Williams was once again fabulous, and appears in recent weeks to have established himself consistently as the Mercs' greatest, perhaps only, irritant. In Q2 he got within a couple of tenths of Rosberg's time, and while it still looked Nico's pole to lose any slip at all and Bottas would have been right in there.

As it was there was no slip. Nico set a stunning 1m 16.540 mark immediately in Q3, Bottas only got to about half a second off it and that was indeed that this time. Bottas got a bit closer on his second run but by now Nico had the thing bought and paid for. He didn't improve himself after missing the DRS on his final run, but it didn't matter.

Nico to a large extent was presented with an open goal of course for pole position, but still he kicked the ball hard and true into the back of the net. And the man himself too afterwards insisted that after seeing Lewis out of things he still continued to push as he would have done. 'It doesn't change the way I approach it. I’m still flat out and pushing all the way through, definitely.

'For now it’s been going really, really well. It’s great, home race here and to be on pole is fantastic.' We all knew what he meant. Nico's big mo appears to be in top gear once more.

With echoes of Lewis a fortnight ago Nico said afterwards that there was a tinge of regret that he wasn't able to right mano-a-mano. But also presumably like Lewis then he won't argue with the advantage that it has given him.

Lewis Hamilton's qualifying ended on the back of a lorry
Photo: Octane Photography
And it all wasn't the end of it for Lewis either, as the goings-on of quali had another tremor, perhaps another couple of them. For one thing he has to change his gearbox as a result of the impact and thus slips from P15 to P20, and it may get even worse as he'll also likely change his braking materials to those Rosberg used yesterday (nothing sinister, drivers change braking materials all the time and it tends to be based on personal preference and circuit characteristics) as a safety precaution. Most assumed that would breach parc ferme regulations and thus mean Lewis would start from the pits, but the team argued not so as the change is a safety measure, something that the powers-that-be eventually agreed with it seems. Given his first lap combativeness a P20 start, and one on the grid rather than from the pits, is a little comfort to Lewis.

Even with Lewis's usual will to win even he conceded that he'd 'have to be smoking something' to think he catch Rosberg in the race, who'll likely be out of sight within a handful of laps. Presumably Lewis's primary goal will be getting up to P2, which with his competitive spirit and fine set of wheels seems an achievable aim, and thus limit his points damage to seven. Watching him try will be fun certainly. There might be rain around too.

Toto Wolff meanwhile - who managed the Bottas once upon a time - had glowing words for the Finn afterwards. 'It looks so (that he is our biggest rival), he has had really good weekends, the last two weekends were really good and today he was really on pace from the first session onwards in the morning, and when you look at the final times he was the only one coming near Nico.'

Kevin Magnussen was another to impress
Photo: Octane Photography
The man himself was pleased too, though expressed it all in that channeled and measured way of his. 'The lap I had in the end was no mistakes and really nice, so I really I felt I got everything out of the car today.'

Rosberg meanwhile, in response to some gentle goading from a Finnish journalist, quipped that as a half-Finn there are one and a half Finns on the front row, which is a new record!

Felipe Massa completed the top three, though was noticeably less chipper than his Williams stable mate given as he was about three tenths off his time. He bemoaned that he couldn't get a set-up that was suitable for all three sectors of the lap.

Lining up directly behind Bottas in P4 is another fast young thing in the shape of Kevin Magnussen, who's looked on it all weekend. A few reckoned that McLaren's apparent upturn may be down to the loss of FRIC and all that, but its racing director Eric Boullier insisted not, and that instead the team has been gradually improving the MP4-29 for some weeks now. Button meanwhile struggled with his balance and with traffic and starts in P11

Both McLaren pilots noted that they struggle with tyre wear on longer runs in the hot temperatures so a cooler, perhaps wet, race will be just fine for them. It'll likely suit the Williams too.

It was business as usual for Ferrari and Alonso
Photo: Octane Photography
Next up were the Bulls, Daniel Ricciardo again ahead. It was a perhaps disappointing performance for the team, as after Friday's running plenty were whispering that the removal of FRIC would be enough to get them somewhere near the Mercs. Some hope.

Ferrari also it seems barely experienced a ripple from the post FRIC era. It was business as usual, Fernando Alonso hauling the thing around but admitting that the seventh place where he ended up is a mere reflection of where the car is right now. While Kimi Raikkonen followed at a respectable distance, and starts twelfth.

Everything going with Nico Rosberg is another thing that barely is experiencing a ripple it seems. We were thinking the same thing two weeks ago after Silverstone's quali of course - and this particular championship fight keeps biting those who get too far ahead of themselves. But now things are even more extreme. And like then it'll take something unusual to halt his victory march.

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