Saturday 20 September 2014

Singapore Qualifying: Fine margins

Sport has an incredible reductive quality. F1 often particularly so. No matter what all have to be strung out into a pecking order. And often it is based on the most infinitesimal, absurd, margins. For more than one reason this hung heavy over the qualifying session for the 2014 Singapore Grand Prix today.

Indeed more broadly it felt a lot like a grand departure from the 2014 season. The one in which we'd got used to comfortable - sometimes positively contemptuous - single team domination. But one specific part of the qualifying hour remained very familiar. That the Mercedes in the end were the ones on top.

Lewis Hamilton was once again smiling
Photo: Octane Photography
The best lap times on the screens even over the lengthy and challenging Singapore lap were within a few tenths for several competitors. No fewer than four teams looked at times genuine contenders for pole. The top nine times in the final reckoning weren't too far over half a second apart. Throughout unlikely cars popped up in unlikely places in the order. But still the Mercs managed in the end to trump them. Even on the matter of closeness.

And not only was it closer than usual, the Mercs took a bit longer than the norm to assert themselves in their habitual position. In a madcap final qualifying part the unlikely figure of Felipe Massa topped things after everyone had done their first runs. It was a worthy effort, and it certainly excited most watching on, but to some extent it was illusory. The Mercs down in P6 and P7 had set their times on scrubbed tyres, and had nice fresh ones awaiting them for their final efforts.

Then during these runs the identity of the driver placed in provisional pole spun like the display of a fruit machine. First off Daniel Ricciardo split the beam at 1m45.854s. Then Nico Rosberg got under it, but only just by this year's standards, by less than two tenths. It looked enough, as he'd been ahead of his chief antagonist and team mate Lewis Hamilton, further down the road, on the splits. Lewis indeed had been struggling with understeer plus he'd locked up into turn one. But still he had something, and a stellar latter part of the lap meant that pole was his by the tiny, massive, margin of 0.007 seconds. James Bond indeed would have been proud of such a timely seizing of the prize against initial odds at the very last.

And following on from the Monza weekend which had a lot of the air of momentum shift about it, it was vital - by whatever margin - that Lewis didn't give the momentum straight back to his rival today. He didn't.

Lewis did enough in his final run
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico's frustration was plain, shrieking 'damn it!' on the radio on his slowdown lap. He reflected later however on sport's maddening capacity to discriminate on the most minuscule of differences. 'Seven thousandths, when I think back to the lap, is nothing' he rued.

'A bit more here or there and I could have done it.'

Nico also rued that his brakes were changed just prior to quali, which in the adaptation he reckoned may have tilted the balance against him crucially.

Lewis meanwhile reckoned that he'd aced it at the vital moment. Or at least come as close as he had done to acing it. 'I just didn't really have a clean lap through the whole of qualifying,' he said. 'The last one was the cleanest.

'I locked up at the apex (of turn one). I was down two tenths by the time I got to turn five, I thought it would be impossible to regain it, but the previous lap there were a couple of corners where I lost out, so I sorted them out.'

But Lewis noted also that there was an auxiliary story about as big from the Marina Bay qualifying today: 'The others have taken a step, it is a real, real surprise.

'I'm just as surprised to see Ferrari competing on a lap, which is great to see, also Williams and Red Bull. For racing it is great. That is the most exciting qualifying session I have had for a long time. You have to be spot on and I was almost there.'

Daniel Ricciardo and his team mate Sebastian Vettel
appear well-placed for the race
Photo: Octane Photography
This track's layout is one not generous on overtaking opportunities, so whoever leads into turn one will be in a good place to control things in tomorrow's race. And this year it's tended to be so that the Silver Arrows fly a bit more swiftly compared with the others on a Sunday even than they do on a Saturday.

But the race is a long one, especially so in Singapore. Both literally and metaphorically. Three stops are expected for the leaders, and those starting outside the top ten on harder tyres could throw in the odd spanner.

Then there's that this Sunday could well be one of survival. Mercedes reliability has never seemed perfect this campaign, and the cooked atmosphere, as well as the bumps, kerbs and stop-start on this one, will give it its sternest test.

Perhaps this is what Nico had in mind when he later uttered: 'Lewis did a good job to get pole, so fair play. Second place is OK, first place would be better, there's a long race ahead and it is fine.'

And as outlined the silver cars will likely have little chance to relent in this one, as the rest could well be right on their case. Both Red Bulls in particular you'd have thought.

'It is definitely encouraging,' noted Ricciardo on qualifying's goings-on. 'Coming into the weekend I thought if we could get within two or three tenths it should give us some optimism to stay close to them (in the race). We are closer than we thought.' Sebastian Vettel - lining up fourth - reckoned pole could have been his with a clean lap. And the Bulls looked strong on race pace on Friday, perhaps if anything stronger than the Mercs. Danny with justification predicted that tomorrow will be 'tasty'.

Things were more encouraging for Ferrari than in a good while
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
As if to print in a gigantic font that today's session was distinct from the usual 2014 fare, even Ferrari had a competitive time of it. As usual its practice form didn't entirely carry to Q3, but on this occasion it wasn't too far off. Fernando Alonso will start fifth, his best about three tenths shy of Lewis's. Kimi Raikkonen probably would have been in the vicinity too but had to abandon his final run due to a software problem. Still, a seventh-place start meant the punishment for him wasn't too great. And those in red are others looking to tomorrow's fare with optimism.

'They're catching up my friend, they're catching up' Mercedes boss Niki Lauda was overhead saying to Paddy Lowe at qualifying's conclusion. This time - at last; at least - it didn't sound like mere healthy paranoia.

No comments:

Post a Comment