Saturday 28 March 2015

Sepang Qualifying: Come rain or shine...

Not even the worst of Sepang's notorious weather could alter things. Nor even his team mate getting in the way. Nor even not improving his mark on his final run. It helped though that his first one - the one that won pole - was stunning.

Lewis Hamilton prevailed once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Yes, Lewis Hamilton prevailed in today's Malaysian Grand Prix qualifying session to take another pole position; his 40th ever. And if his winning out a fortnight ago in Melbourne was about his supposedly new-found skills of managing matters from the front with the smallest amount of rancour, today what was decisive were his long established party tricks - bravery, car control, improvisation.

Malaysia's weather indeed did its typical worst, and not for the first time we were given grounds to suspect that the local weather Gods are possessed with a wicked sense of humour, as the flash rainstorm arrived at about the least convenient moment as far as the competitors were concerned. Dark clouds gathered and lightning could be seen nearing just as Q2 began. Typically there was a queue at the pit lane end before the green light preceding a mass scramble to get a time in before the wet stuff indeed came down in its time-honoured Biblical proportions. Lewis stuck in traffic only just made it through, but he needed no more luck after that.

And come rain or shine the Mercedes remains the boss, and Lewis particularly so. First time out when running was allowed eventually in Q3 Lewis in the tricky conditions under foot put everyone firmly in their box, using the skills listed to set a stellar 1m 49.834, 1.2 seconds under the best of the rest, who just so happened to be his team mate Nico Rosberg.

It in itself proved enough...just. As things weren't quite as good again for him. He looked likely to improve on a later effort but abandoned the lap shortly after having to move off line to get around...Nico Rosberg. Something that no doubt will set off the latest round of conspiracy shrieking. Lewis didn't improve on his final run either (and neither did Nico), and the pole was so nearly snatched from between the fumbling Merc pair, Sebastian Vettel coming within a tenth of it though he nevertheless has a worthy front row start for tomorrow. But starting first tomorrow will be to Lewis.

Nico Rosberg was disappointed with his effort
Photo: Octane Photography
He rather shunned any temptation to stir the latest intra-Merc frothing pot, by claiming that he didn't remember any contretemps with his team mate. Nico too stated simply that he 'just didn't drive well enough, I'm annoyed by that. Third place is not good enough.'

But Lewis was much more content as you'd imagine. 'Definitely very happy with the first lap, and grateful that I got through just with that lap' he said of his early, and decisive, effort, before adding with much sang froid: 'It was generally a good lap'.

'When you go out in the wet for your first time, it's all about adapting to the new conditions. You don't know where it's going to aquaplane, you don't know what part of the track is more slippery than're just trying to feel it from your gut and through your butt'.

And with yet more sang froid he concluded 'that's something always that I've not been not too bad at since I was a kid'.

Furthermore it is again clear advantage to Lewis, who has yet to be beaten when it matters in 2015. Even this early you suspect that Nico needs to do something to tilt things more to a level and soon.

In another thing that couldn't stop Lewis so far is that this weekend his practice running was severely compromised by reliability and set-up problems. Nico will likely be relying on some more of that tomorrow to prevail.

Sebastian Vettel again had plenty to smile about
Photo: Octane Photography
As cited too there was a highly impressive effort from Sebastian Vettel to split the Mercs and oh so nearly claim pole for himself. Perhaps more pointedly too his best at the last was 1.6 seconds quicker than the next non-Mercedes.

Both driver and his Ferrari team admitted however that without the rain things wouldn't have been quite as close. Technical Director James Allison noted that 'you have to assume the basic pace of the Mercedes is faster than us; we can't have closed that much that quickly', while Seb added in a similar vein 'you have to be realistic; Mercedes has an advantage which didn't just disappear, maybe it wasn't that obvious (today) but it's still there'. But still Ferrari has demonstrated this weekend that its step-up on show in 2015 thus far is very real, and that it's a strong candidate for best of the rest. While Seb like Lewis we know is strong in such tricky and ever-changing conditions.

How near he can stay to the Mercs tomorrow with what presumably will be a clear run will be fascinating. The car's race runs looked impressive yesterday, and Malaysian races often are about who's lightest on their feet in responding to what the weather does. As well as that with the long run to turn one then the tight complex matters can quickly appear very different after the red light goes out.

Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari probably would have been in the mix - after all he was right with Seb in previous session, possibly even slightly quicker - but for getting stuck behind Marcus Ericsson in that blink-and-you-miss-it Q2 jumble, which meant he missed out on the top ten. 'He'll come very quickly up the field tomorrow' Allison predicted.

Max Verstappen showed up the doubters
Photo: Octane Photography
There were plenty of other worthy performances out there too. The Red Bull appreciated the weather change and leapt up to P4 and P5, with Daniel Ricciardo ahead. Perhaps showing that amid the problems with its Renault power unit the chassis as usual from down Milton Keynes way gives pretty good downforce. And not far behind them in P6 is the stunning Max Verstappen. The sport's self-flagellation when the 17 year-old was confirmed for his Toro Rosso race gig is merely the latest demonstration that nobody knows anything.

But Williams suggested that it hasn't cracked its wet weather pace problem that we often witnessed last year. Felipe Massa will start a distant P7 and Valtteri Bottas and even more distant P9 (though he gained a place after Romain Grosjean got a two-place penalty for passing someone in the pit lane in that Q2 queue I mentioned). It's still not clear where exactly the Grove cars sit in the normal run of things in 2015.

While in positional terms at least the McLarens were where you'd expect them to be, beating only the Manors. But even though the freight had been delivered straight from Australian the two MP4-30s were now a fortnight on much closer to the peleton, only three tenths over Sepang's long lap separating them from the next guy up. It might have been closer too but for Fernando Alonso messing up his final effort (as a result Jenson Button pipped him too). Noises from both drivers remain positive. Intriguingly so.

But it's thoroughly clear where the Mercs sit; indeed where they sit whether the running is normal or otherwise. And right now the same goes, apparently, for Lewis Hamilton.

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