Saturday 4 October 2014

Suzuka Qualifying: Things move quickly

Things move quickly in F1. In more ways than one.

Nico Rosberg ended up being the one smiling today
Photo: Octane Photography
Today's qualifying session for the Japanese Grand Prix had an other-worldly quality about it, that rather was in keeping with the astonishing 2015 driver news that had suddenly swirled in the morning. The astonishing news being that Sebastian Vettel was to leave his family home of Red Bull. With its many presumable implications.

The actual important on-track circulating seemed mere background noise to it all. Adding to it some mused that the drivers were frenetically qualifying for a race that might not happen. Or at the very least will be very different...

But rather as the 2015 drivers' market had done to it earlier the qualifying hour moved the immediate matter of the 2014 world drivers' championship on, possibly significantly, and in a way that wasn't universally anticipated. In recent weeks all of the talk has been of Lewis Hamilton's momentum, momentum that had taken him to the table top from rather a long way back. But today Nico managed to check it. Accepting that it is but one qualifying session, as well as that five races (and 150 points) remain, today still felt important.

Even with the recent momentum there had at the same time been very little to choose between Nico and Lewis on pace. Plus another constant of this campaign is that Nico Rosberg keeps reminding us that he isn't going to go away at all easily. He reminded us again today.

For much of the session there looked typically barely a sliver between the two in silver on the watch, even though Lewis had ended FP3 early that morning with an off. But in the vital final part Nico stepped up, dipping three tenths under his best previous - and Lewis's current - time. And Nico's final lap was two tenths better than his stable mate's too; Lewis's effort containing almost imperceptible, but still vital, scrappy moments that made all of the difference. As Nico looked close to flawless.

Nico's best laps looked close to flawless
Photo: Octane Photography
And he insisted afterwards that, unlike most others, his recent ill-fortune, particularly in Singapore, wasn't on his mind.

'I'm not thinking about Singapore any more at all' Nico noted. 'It was a great day today, of course it's only one step on the way, but it was a real pleasure today because the car is so amazing to drive and on this track which is one of the most spectacular tracks to drive'.

Lewis meanwhile struggled to put his finger on why he ended up two tenths away: 'Nico was extremely quick today' he said, 'I did the best I could, the guys did a fantastic job to re-build the car after I binned it...Just today, wasn't really feeling it, I don't know why. I was still fast but Nico was fantastic.'

The quali fight was once again a very private Mercedes affair. Suzuka's requirements for grunt and strong handling in changes of direction and in long turns are rather up the W05's street. But not for the first time this year it was the Williams and in particular Valtteri Bottas that was closest. Bottas indeed performed brilliantly to get six tenths off the pole time as well as a clear four tenths ahead of his team mate Felipe Massa. Underlining that Mercedes is on another level though Bottas noted afterwards: 'third and fourth, that was the goal today...'.

Bottas admitted that the expected race day rain isn't due to suit the FW36, but that they might have enough in hand over the next guys up to fight for a podium nevertheless.

All the while Fernando Alonso smiled knowingly at all of the intrigue that surrounds his future movements. And got on with the business of extracting the absolute maximum out of his machine, and putting his team mate away as he did so. He for the nth time starts fifth, with Kimi Raikkonen eight tenths and five places further back.

Daniel Ricciardo starts sixth
Photo: Octane Photography
Suzuka has in recent years been solid Red Bull country, but again underlining how things moved on a challenge didn't materialise today. Yet not only did it get nowhere near the Mercs, which was not unexpected, it also had the Williams and a Ferrari leap ahead too. Christian Horner suggested that the team has erred more towards a wet set-up with tomorrow in mind.

Daniel Ricciardo got on with business though and managed to claim sixth place on the grid, while the soon to flee the nest Sebastian Vettel was four tenths over his mark in P9.

The McLarens completed the top ten in seventh and eighth with Kevin Magnussen ahead.

As intimated there is something close to consensus that tomorrow's race will be held in the rain. Possibly with bucket-loads of the stuff. If we see green flag racing, and given Suzuka's unforgiving challenges, the Grand Prix could well be one of survival.

Nico remained confident though on his and his team's behalf: '(We're) as prepared as we can be (for rain). We're expecting it, we're expecting it to be wet. Our last experience we have in the wet is Spa where our car was really really quick so I'm very very optimistic. If it rains to could be even better for us.' Lewis meanwhile was 'looking forward to all the different tricky weather'.

If we don't see green flag racing then it only takes two laps to be completed behind the safety car for half points to be awarded, and some pointed out that if that happens Nico would leave Japan with a half point lead...

But then again if today taught us anything, and more than once, it is that we shouldn't try to extrapolate too far ahead in F1. Things move quickly in this game, as I said.

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