Saturday 18 April 2015

Sakhir Qualifying: Holding on for tomorrow

This one was supposed to be different. Finally, we thought, the haughty Mercedes would have a fight on its hands. That the wind was gusting added another welcome variable. Some hope. Once this particular kaleidoscope had settled, its pieces were back in rather familiar places. Lewis Hamilton took pole position for the Bahrain Grand Prix. As he has everywhere in 2015 thus far. And it wasn't even close in the end.

Lewis Hamilton continued his clean sweep of poles in 2015
Photo: Octane Photography
Many looked to Ferrari here, and indeed near the last of the final qualifying act Sebastian Vettel was at centre stage, on top of the timing screens. But crucially this was before Lewis had finished his lines, and they it transpired were emphatic, as he swept around almost last over the line with a mark four tenths under Seb's. Everyone was consigned back into their respective boxes.

"It's never easy doing qualifying" said Lewis later, and we don't doubt him. But like many sportspeople at the top of their considerable skills, Lewis right now makes it appear so.

But even so he couldn't conceal where he is right now: "As a driver, for me, I love qualifying" he went on. "You've got to go out and bring everything together that you've learnt for that one lap, and it's so's so much fun."

Another thing that didn't change was the identity of those in the top three - Lewis, Seb then Nico Rosberg. The first three rounds indeed were the first time ever in F1 history that there has been the same top three in the opening three races of the season. Odd but true apparently.

But of course many of those reasons why we thought it could be different this time in Bahrain may well still hold when it really matters. As seen in Malaysia while this year's Ferrari is good all round its trump card is its tyre management over a race stint, which like Malaysia - so the theory goes - will be rewarded here at Sakhir with the high temperatures and on its abrasive surface. Perhaps the surprises are merely delayed a day.

Seb was hard to read afterwards though. He expressed optimism for Sunday, but only that "in the race we are maybe a bit closer." Indeed he seemed to be massaging expectations ever so slightly.

"We all know that they (Mercedes) have a very very strong package" said Seb, "so in the end it's a great success for us to be able to split them. Again we seem to be a little bit closer but then again everyone seems to be a little bit closer..."

Does Sebastian Vettel have reason to smile?
Photo: Octane Photography
And upon being asked explicitly about the prospect of winning tomorrow Seb again seemed to play it down: "Let's not forget it's race four, and we're very happy where we are, very happy with how competitive we are, so really go step by step. We try to do our best race possible...the target really is to look after ourselves; for sure if there's a chance to fight one or both of them (the Mercedes) we have to go for it."

Is it a case of under promising and over-delivering, as a management consultant would have it? Or does he think we're all getting a bit overexcited, against a foe which, lest we forget, remains very strong? Tomorrow will contain the answers on that one. Whatever is the case, even with a tyre deg advantage four tenths on raw pace is a lot to find via other means, and the leader Lewis will have the ability to manage things to his own benefit at the front. We've seen in recent times he's rather good at it.

We can't ignore though why everyone is so eager about how the red cars will do tomorrow. Friday practice yesterday had the Ferrari averaging a second a lap quicker in a race simulation run on the soft tyres that are excepted to be used in the main tomorrow. But Rosberg for one insisted that this particular matter has moved on since, at least to some extent:

"Friday they (Ferrari) were quicker than us but we worked on the car a lot Friday night and we think we've improved it a lot. It was to do with the cold conditions, it's really cold in the evenings, and the tyres weren't really working properly, so we had to work on that. We're confident that we improved things, so we should be maybe a little bit quicker or at least on a par with Ferrari."

Lewis was less forthcoming though. "I don't go into the race worried" he said. "Going into this weekend I don't really know; they're (Ferrari) back to being really really strong I believe and I'm told they might be stronger. can I change that?...That's the big question mark."

"I don't think I've ever had a plan going into a race" Lewis went on, "you have kind of a gameplan but it switches up as soon as you do the start...what I try to do is, don't go in with a plan but make sure I'm prepared for whatever's thrown at me. It's like having a ball thrown at you when you don't expect it, you have to catch it in whatever hand."

Nico Rosberg trailed again, and rued his approach
Photo: Octane Photography
Nico more broadly today had to suck up the fact that he was half a second slower than his team mate, and given it's come a week after China and all that it scarcely could have been worse timed, in terms of onlookers' perceptions at least. The man himself was about as insistent that there were mitigating circumstances though.

"Just strategy today" he said, "that I didn't push enough in qualifying and I thought too much about the race. And that would have been fine if I finished behind Lewis but not finishing third. I didn't see that coming also, I didn't see Sebastian being that quick, and I didn't think I would struggle that much as a result, so that's where I got it wrong today.

"Nevertheless...I've had some great starts this weekend...maybe I can get second after the start...I have better tyres than everybody else for tomorrow's race but I'm too much on the back foot being third...I have better tyres but it's only a small thing...third place on the grid it's definitely not good."

Whatever is the case though he'll need to get a shift on tomorrow, as plenty are speculating about him being used strategically to keep the Ferraris away from his beloved stable mate. I'm sure Nico would be thrilled at that prospect...

It generally was a rather up and down qualifying session, understandable with the wind we've mentioned plus here, unusually, you have two of the three practice sessions run in the daytime which makes their use rather limited for qualifying and the race run after dark.

Kimi Raikkonen was next up in fourth, not far off Rosberg's best plus having looked strong for the most part in Bahrain. He remains a contender. Williams was next up after that, and while Felipe Massa appeared to be continuing his good recent form and on a track he loves, his final effort wasn't great ("I couldn't put my lap together in Q3...which cost maybe a position") and Valtteri Bottas ended up beating him by three tenths. Nico Hulkenberg's effort to claim eighth on the grid also was notable particularly given Force India's iffy start to this campaign - and the Silverstone team is another that always seems to go well here.

McLaren in Fernando Alonso's hands made another step
Photo: Octane Photography
And speaking of worthy efforts, and despite McLaren once again rather talking down its prospects in advance, the Woking team continued its conspicuous race-by-race step forward in 2015. Fernando Alonso made it to Q2 - the first time a McLaren had done so this season - and indeed he did it with, astonishingly, the ninth best time in the opening segment. There's life in that old dog yet. Come Q2 he trimmed two tenths from his time though by then it only was good enough for a P14 start. For Jenson Button though his horrible weekend continued as his qualifying barely got started thanks to a mechanical breakdown.

But for the sport more broadly, in terms of the competitive scrap for first place at least things are looking better than in a while. As for the first time in that while which team is the most potent on a Sunday is a matter that is unclear heading in. Malaysia's result was a surprise of course, and if Ferrari can enact something similar tomorrow it will be much less so. But to do it it'll need to defeat an opponent who is at his mesmerising best.


  1. vettel qualified 4th in australia....

    1. Ah, sorry. Turns out the record was the first time the same three drivers had filled the top 3 in the *race* in the first three rounds. My fault for not reading the stat properly. Thanks for altering me to me error - I'll go in and change it...