Saturday 11 October 2014

Sochi Qualifying: Continuing the Lewis theme

You wonder if Nico Rosberg turned up to the new Sochi Autodrom earlier this week, and let out a groan.

Not a reflection of the quality of the track hosting the inaugural Russian Grand Prix per se. No one was entirely sure what to expect in advance, after all. Data for simulation had been hard to come by. And once they were actually circulating on it for real drivers were pleasantly surprised by the circuit's challenge apparently.

Today Lewis Hamilton continued his recent momentum
Photo: Octane Photography
But many had already noted the Abu Dhabi similarities. An ultra-smooth low grip surface, with plenty of short 90-degree corners. A track that Lewis Hamilton is mighty on. He hardly needed it given the recent momentum, but before a wheel had been turned it looked like advantage to Lewis.

So it proved. For most of the weekend he's appeared on another level, as much to Nico as to everyone else. And this continued into qualifying. Nico could shadow box, but he never looked likely to land a glove on his team mate and title rival. Lewis took the pole from him by a clear two tenths.

'Lewis was quicker all weekend really' said an honest Nico later.

'I've been working hard to try and get close but couldn't get closer than those two tenths, that's the way it is, need to accept that. He tried however to maintain his optimism for the race, adding: 'from the front row everything is possible'.

Indeed, the odd threats to Lewis's pole position came from other, irregular, sources. The Q3 session was a strange one, with many struggling to match their times from the previous part. Word was of the track losing grip. Even Lewis was afflicted, coming in three tenths over his - admittedly stunning - Q2 effort.

Nico nevertheless couldn't match him, but at the very last it looked like the amazing Valtteri Bottas might. Or even if he couldn't perhaps split the imperious Mercs. In the first two sectors he glowed purple, but towards the end he appeared to be losing rear grip, and on the final turn it bit him decisively and his tank slapper sent him off. It meant he had to stay as best of the rest. 'That was close, we were a bit lucky...' a relieved Toto Wolff admitted after the guns had fallen silent.

'Maybe looking back I took a bit too much out of the tyres at the beginning of the lap' Bottas explained frankly, 'and the last sector became a bit more tricky and as I was gaining time towards the end compared to my best it became more difficult in the last few corners.'

He reckoned also that pole was beyond his reach whatever was the case: 'Of course. It is not nice to make a mistake, but in the end I think today it cost one place maximum.'

Things may be getting critical for Nico Rosberg
Photo: Octane Photography
For far from the first time Bottas looked the only one able to cling to the Mercs, and the point-and-squirt type layout plays to the Williams' strengths. Sadly though for Felipe Massa across the garage a fuel pressure problem in Q1 results in a P18 start for him.

As for Nico, adding to his apparent woe this too is in a weekend wherein time is getting tight for him to halt Lewis's momentum. A Lewis victory tomorrow will leave Nico at best with 17 points to make up in three rounds. Which put another way means Nico will have to win everywhere if we work on the (fairly reasonable) assumption that the Mercedes will finish one-two each time. Perhaps head scratching time for him.

He nevertheless rejected the notion that this meeting was critical: 'Every race is important at the moment, we have four to go...'

Wolff too couldn't put his finger on what was explaining the difference. 'Lewis just banked it' he concluded.

Lewis meanwhile was quietly content: 'Pole is a great place to wasn't the easiest of sessions...just hooking up a good lap for some reason it wasn't the same as practice. But I'm really grateful that I've got the pole.'

Valtteri Bottas was once again a wonderful best of the rest
Photo: Octane Photography
There were other stories out there in Sochi today. One was a fabulous tale of home hero Daniil Kvyat, who qualified in an elevated P5. And further he qualified as the leading Red Bull-backed runner, becoming the first Toro Rosso incumbent to do so on pace that anyone could remember since the balmy days of 2008, when the one thumbing his nose at the A team establishment was one Sebastian Vettel.

There today seemed something of the coming of a full circle about it. As who will start the lowest tomorrow out of the four Red Bull cars? Why, Sebastian Vettel.

'It's a great feeling...I'll be happy for a while now' the young Russian noted, understandably.

The big Bull team however has struggled since arriving in Russia - and without obvious explanation - though Daniel Ricciardo did manage to salvage seventh place, which converts to sixth on the grid thanks to a penalty ahead. A similarly-benefiting Seb starts tenth.

Ferrari was another team facing grim times, though at this track where traction is vital perhaps it's small comfort to the squad that it could have been anticipated. Fernando Alonso starts an eventual seventh and Kimi Raikkonen eighth.

McLaren by contrast looks to be having its best weekend in a while. Its relatively good traction is well-rewarded here (possibly not a coincidence therefore that the team's best weekend of the season was when faced with similar challenges in Australia). On Friday the MP4/29s were strong, and though its pace oddly disappeared this morning it was back when it mattered in qualifying. Almost unnoticed given everything else that was going on Jenson Button qualified fourth, with Kevin Magnussen two places back, although he has to add five to his starting slot due to a gearbox change as intimated.

Today contained a wonderful tale of Daniil Kvyat
Photo: Octane Photography
As is often the case at new tracks Pirelli appears to have erred on the side of caution; degradation experienced has been minimal (Christian Horner reckoned that you could drive home on the tyres). Many therefore expect one-stoppers all round tomorrow pretty much, and that the pit lane speed limit has been reduced to 60kph in the course of the weekend has made reducing the stop frequency even more attractive.

But on the other hand the pace gap between the compounds is large, and that that safety car periods are thought likely tomorrow - due to nearby walls, few access points and a probably increased sense of safety first following Suzuka's events - means flexibility will be key too. But drivers should be able to push throughout on the tyres at least, though whether they can do the same on the fuel is another matter. The GP2 race had to be reduced by two laps indeed because the gas available proved marginal.

There also is, as both Mercedes drivers noted, a long run from the launch into the first turn (curiously titled 'Turn 2') and a rather tight funnelling when you get there. How that plays out could make things look very different very quickly tomorrow. Lewis predicted that the circuit's nature with two lengthy DRS zones and a wide track should result in plenty of action more generally.

But perhaps there won't be too much in regard to first place. Today's qualifying session at the top of the pile involved no twists; merely continuation. That right now everything it seems is coming up Lewis.

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