Sunday 6 July 2014

Silverstone Qualifying: Curiouser and curiouser

The plot gets thicker and thicker; perhaps curiouser and curiouser.

Of the intra-Mercedes battle for the 2014 World Drivers' Championship that is. Until the very last breath of yesterday's Silverstone qualifying session it looked certain that it was to be the starting point of Lewis Hamilton's long-awaited fightback; finally checking Nico Rosberg's creeping momentum. But no. To borrow the celebrated and possibly apocryphal "Yogi" Berra quote, 'it ain't over til it's over' (though Berra is also quoted as uttering 'I never said most of the things I said' - it's never easy to know for certain where myth starts and ends) at the very last split second - and utterly against anticipation - matters were picked up, turned and thrust back down onto their head.

Nico Rosberg continued his recent momentum with
a last gasp pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
It was a day for curiosity, with the Silverstone weather for qualifying the most curious thing of all. Even to those familiar with the habits of the British summertime elements.

Rain of Saturday morning had abated and the track looked to be drying, but then in the qualifying hour itself the rain sort of leaked at inopportune moments. Then stopped. Then started again. And not always all over the vast track either. This combined with a long, two minute, lap meant that being out on circuit with the right tyres and the right moment - always crucial on such days - was a perilous undertaking.

Indeed it had already taken some famous scalps, both Ferraris and Williams suffering the ignominy of a Q1 exit, all having missed the opportunity narrow window of running on slicks towards the end of that session by seconds before more rain arrived. All have a lot to do in the race.

Matters then seemed to reach a settlement of sorts, and Lewis Hamilton had put all of his freakish skills, reflexes and bravery to good use, as he does invariably on such days when the grip available is a moving target. He topped the pile throughout seemingly, often comfortably, and as a fresh lot of rain arrived partway through the final session his pole position, with Nico right behind, looked assured.

But the curious day contained one more curious twist. Seven of the top ten, including both Mercs, emerged at the last for one final throw (only Daniel Ricciardo and the two Toro Rossos remained in the garage). And 'throw' was the operative word as the transparent thinking was that they had tyres available and therefore nothing to lose.

As the cars proceeded on a still perfidious track it all indeed appeared an exercise in futility. But the grand twist was hidden in the final sector. When all had set their previous Q3 times the conditions in that sector, made up of but four corners, meant that four seconds were lost. And now, the surface drier, these could be reclaimed. And this was enough to allow all to leap up the timing screens. First off Sebastian Vettel, who hadn't set a Q3 lap time at all before that point, speared straight to the top, to an audible intake of breath all of the way around the circuit.

Lewis Hamilton had little option but to lick
 a self-inflicted wound
Photo: Octane Photography
But before we knew it Nico Rosberg had snatched the mark for himself, leaving Seb a still surprise second. All then peered for Lewis Hamilton to pile over the line to surely take the pole back as if it was his by right. But no matter how hard or long we stared he never arrived. He'd abandoned his effort and by this point was cruising rather sheepishly down the pitlane.

Others' improvement in that final and vital moment leaves Lewis to start in a scarcely credible sixth. And afterwards he admitted that him aborting his final lap was a simple, yet massive, error of judgement. A combination of a small mistake at turn four and him reckoning there wasn't sufficient grip out there resulted in him getting out of it early in the lap. He'd disobeyed one of the oldest adages of sporting endeavour - that you must always play to the whistle.

Lewis was therefore left with little option but to lick a self-inflicted wound. He knows that the British Grand Prix was most likely lost - barring more freak circumstances on race day - in that final gasp of quali.

'I made a mistake today and pulled out of the lap when I should have kept going' Hamilton said. 'It was a tough qualifying with the changing conditions and we got through most of it really well, until the most important part. It was my decision, a bad call, and that decided my qualifying.

'I'm so sorry to have disappointed the fans here today as their support has been fantastic...'

In his defence plenty of other drivers were tempted to abort themselves, so foul-handling did their cars feel early on in their final effort. Nico Hulkenberg - one of thew 'winners' in the shake out with a P4 starting slot - for one said as much: 'To begin with it (his final lap) was nowhere and I thought almost of aborting it because it felt really bad'. But on this subject the words of Jenson Button - who'd sent home fans away happy with an exalted third place for the grid - were interesting.

Jenson Button had some interesting words afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
'I made the mistake in turn five and I think I was 1.2 seconds down on my previous lap, but I knew that the last sector on my previous lap was about four seconds off what I thought I could do' said Jenson. 'I knew when I got round there if it wasn't raining we would have been quicker in the last sector.' Nico Rosberg said words afterwards outlining a similar cockpit calculation too. It would be remiss not to wonder why Lewis had not concluded the same thing.

But the stark absence of gloats and self-congratulation from those for whom it worked out was conspicuous. They knew that it could have just as easily them that were the ones looking foolish, especially with the track conditions so wickedly variable.

Indeed Jenson himself said as much: 'We've all made mistakes in the past, you make a mistake on the lap and you think "it's over, it's done" and the conditions are drier than you expected at the other side of the circuit. You definitely learn from your mistakes; I did it in Melbourne where the yellow flags were I thought it was over, but in the last sector I probably could have qualified into Q3. I definitely learned from that.'

Sebastian Vettel claimed a timely P2
Photo: Octane Photography
Sergio Perez - who'd lost out in a similar fashion to Lewis and dropped from P3 to P7 in that final act - said similar: 'It was easy to get it wrong - I think we as a team can be happy with the result...if you do a little mistake I think you are big time out.'

There was a heavy sense of 'there but for the grace of God, go I' around in the Silverstone paddock on Saturday afternoon.

Rosberg as you'd expect though was delighted with how everything had fallen for him: 'It just worked out perfectly...Yeah, of course, with regards to the championship, it's good for me that Lewis is down in sixth...Of course starting from pole is the best possible place and I'm very confident for the race.'

Nico also was generous to his stable mate, insisting that he expects Lewis to clear the cars between them quickly. But even so you rather suspect that by the time he does Nico's advantage will already be decisive. It'll take yet more curiosity for Nico's momentum in the championship fight to not extend yet further today.

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