Saturday 14 March 2015

Melbourne Qualifying: Ever increasing circles

The opening qualifying session of the year always feels like a grand revelation. That the talk of pre-season testing - including both talking up and talking down - is shown sometimes pitilessly for what it was. The equivalent of what Warren Buffet called the tide going out to reveal who's been swimming without trunks. Yet even with testing's capacity for obfuscation it felt that today in Melbourne things were as expected. But more so.

The Mercedes was on top as was especially Lewis Hamilton
Photo: Octane Photography
You would have struggled in advance to find anyone that didn't think the Mercedes would be on top in Australia. Probably comfortably. But even with this the size of the advantage took the breath from a few stomachs. In the end the best of the rest in P3 took a full 1.4 seconds longer to complete its quickest lap. Anyone who was yet clinging to the notion of Merc relent in 2015 probably released their grip today. Indeed, it seems the rest haven't even done a great deal to trim the massive advantage of 2014. Maybe in fact it's grown.

And of the two silver cars' pilots it was Lewis Hamilton who was the one on top - and by a distance. Whether this was expected or not is a matter of contention. With his latest title under his belt there has been a developing consensus that Lewis would establish a clear upper hand this year. But then again it feels like we've been waiting for this for a while, and Nico Rosberg in and out the car in the off season looked a man determined not to let the matter settle anything like that easily. Then in Friday's practice he seemed to have a tenth on his team mate time after time.

Today though matters appeared to switch, especially when the soft tyres were on. And the gap in the end of quali wasn't small, with Rosberg's final effort in Q3 a full half second shy of Hamilton's first Q3 mark, which Lewis then came around to shave a tenth from as a coup de grace.

Lewis as you might imagine beamed afterwards, not only has he seized the opportunity to set early momentum but also for once nailed his Q3 effort after struggling therein so persistently last season. 'It's been a good day, I was really really happy with it (his qualifying session)...I was happy that I was able to put the laps together consistently' he said.

Lewis has set early momentum, but both he and
Nico think the race could be a different matter
Photo: Octane Photography
And Lewis's contentment went way beyond the lap itself: 'When you approach a weekend you never really know what to expect; you don't know where your mind is. Once I came across the line it really solidified my belief of where my mind currently is.'

While taking up the subject of possibly the day's biggest learning point he added: 'what an amazing job this team has done, I mean 1.4 seconds to the teams behind...'. We know Lewis, we know.

Nico meanwhile was frank, admitting that 'the speed was there, I just didn't get it together today'. Curiously just about all of the gap to Lewis lay in the first sector even though there weren't perceptible errors from the German. That he botched his first Q3 run probably didn't help however.

Lewis however had reason to think that tomorrow's race wouldn't involve a similar trouncing of his team mate. 'It's still going to be a challenge' he insisted, 'I've got Nico close behind...every time he goes into the factory he's constantly doing race runs on the simulator...I have to expect that he's going to be quicker there. I've got to work hard this evening and tomorrow to make sure I'm on point.'

Nico as you might imagine concurred: 'In the long runs, my pace was very strong so hopefully it can be the other way around tomorrow. P2, I have to live with that today. It's still a long day tomorrow.'

Felipe Massa saved his best for last to be best of the rest
Photo: Octane Photography
In another matter that to a large extent was as anticipated the Williams and Ferraris were locked in a tight battle for best of those (a long way) adrift of the Mercs; the Grove cars just like last year stepping up when it mattered after eschewing any temptation for glory runs on Friday.

In the end though it was Felipe Massa who topped them, after operating a little under the radar until the very last. He described it as 'a very tricky qualifying - especially when you have four cars fighting for a very similar time all the time...but I'm happy that I did a good lap...I prepared everything for the last try and it worked'.

Valtteri Bottas would probably have been in that vicinity at least but rather made a mess of the final corner of his last run and starts sixth instead. There's some chat too that his trip into the uneven stuff exacerbated a back problem and he might not even start tomorrow. But you'd imagine it'll take a lot to keep Valtteri away.

In between the two is the Ferrari pair, with Sebastian Vettel ahead of Kimi Raikkonen. For the most part Seb looked to have a clean pair of heels on the Finn but in the final shakeout the gap was a scant 0.033 secs. And we know that Kimi tends to come on stronger in the races. More generally today was evidence that Ferrari has indeed stepped up since 2014, but it appears only to the battle for the second row at the very most. Nevertheless it still has a good chance, assuming both Mercs finish, of completing the podium tomorrow given their race simulation pace here yesterday was such that Massa was moved to call it 'incredible'.

Both Ferrari drivers are in a close fight for P3
Photo: Octane Photography
There were a few impressive performances elsewhere too, with again as expected on the basis of testing a midfield group which looks mostly a more serious offering than in 2014. Indeed today the Lotus team that hung off the back around Albert Park a year ago had both cars get through to the top ten shoot out. Toro Rosso if anything looked even stronger than Enstone and indeed Carlos Sainz will start in eighth tomorrow - this order perhaps wasn't expected as it was his fledging team mate Max Verstappen who got the bulk of the attention in advance. The Dutchman nevertheless will start in twelfth.

While despite missing FP1 with the various Giedo van der Garde-related shenanigans Felipe Nasr very nearly made it to Q3 and will start in eleventh; he's another who impressed many.

There isn't nearly as much encouragement for Red Bull though, which rather struggled. The new boy Daniil Kvyat didn't get out of Q2 and will start in a slightly ignominious P13, while Daniel Ricciardo - and despite an extreme paucity of practice running - pulled everything out to claim P7, a result that Christian Horner admitted was the absolute maximum. For the second year in a row astonishingly it seems that Renault is well behind the curve, a fact that Red Bull this weekend hasn't been shy of pointing out in public. While you suspect that the Red Bull operation won't be turning down the heat on it internally, you suspect still that Renault must be grateful that there is another entity taking the wider attention away as it's currently doing even worse.

Today was an ignominious one for McLaren
Photo: Octane Photography
Today the back mirrored the front. McLaren struggled as expected. But more so. With Manor not running the two Woking cars will fill the back row of the grid tomorrow; their Q1 efforts once tyre compounds are corrected for four seconds off the Merc pace in the same session (and compared with Q3 times five seconds off). The result was one that got the historians digging for occasions on which the team had done worse in its lengthy previous - in the rains of Interlagos in 2009 they filled the same starting positions (though at least had a car behind them as well as the excuse of the weather) but you have to go back further to find a worse result, to the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix for which neither McLaren qualified.

All rather embarrassing for the team. Yet while clearly there is a mountain to climb equally clearly all in the squad when speaking in public at least remain insistent of the car's great potential. Jenson Button for one hopped out of his machine after his Q1 drop out and maintained that 'there's still a good feeling about the car - the basic car is there', while Ron Dennis added that 'it's a huge challenge; but we are up for it'. Time will tell on this one.

But as we know the Mercedes preponderance is something that exists absolutely in the here and now. And going by today's rather galling demonstration it'll be with us for a while. While the rest might be forgiven for feeling that they're operating in ever decreasing circles, for the silver lot if anything the circles are increasing.

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