Saturday 11 April 2015

Shanghai Qualifying: No surprise in Shanghai

You know what they say about when things are going for you.

Lewis Hamilton has looked untouchable from the very moment a Pirelli first turned in Shanghai this weekend, apparently continuing a 2015 wherein he's appeaered somewhere near the top of his towering repertoire. And well on top of his ailing team mate Nico Rosberg.

After China's qualifying session, it
was a familiar figure on pole
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis topped all three practice sessions. Then come qualifying he looked on a plateau, tearing chunks out of each of his marks at the top of the timing screens, and to a scarcely credible extent, tour after tour.

But at the vital moment and when we least expected Lewis had a slight stumble. This track is one that evolves rapidly, and Lewis somehow on his final flying lap didn't improve, almost incongruously giving Nico a sliver of light. Nico did improve, but not quite enough, falling short by a scant 0.042 seconds. Or a blink of an eye. But no matter as pole was once again Lewis Hamilton's, his third from three in 2015. And his fifth ever in Shanghai.

So even when he got it wrong he got it right. As I said, when things are going for you...

And afterwards Nico seemed destroyed. His 'oh come on guys' over radio when being told how close he was to winning out for once laid bare his frustration right now. Out of the car his expression was stern and tense. His words economical.

'When it's four hundredths...that's nothing' he almost forced himself to say. 'I was frustrated, I am frustrated as it's so close.'

'The lap was good' he added later, 'yeah, very annoying; the lap is never perfect so four hundredths is all that's in it.'

So it seemed running Lewis so near rather than a source of encouragement Nico took as another kick when he was down. Perhaps he would empathise with the words of John Cleese in Clockwise: 'It's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand'. Whatever is the case at the moment to outsiders it looks a lot like that whatever Nico does the guy in the other Merc is able one way or another to deliver more. It's understandable if Nico's starting to suspect similar.

Still, both Merc pilots were insistent that matters for tomorrow's race are not foregone.

Nico Rosberg was once again left rueful
Photo: Octane Photography
'Obviously we've got a tough race ahead of us tomorrow' said Lewis, 'Nico's very quick and also the Ferraris are very good with their long run pace. It's not over by any means.'

While Nico still foresaw avenues that he can venture down when it really matters: 'There's a few opportunities as there's the start and then there's the strategy and the tyre degradation. Tyre degradation is going to be a big issue tomorrow, we're going to take the tyres to the limit, so there's many opportunities.'

As Lewis attested too and as indeed anyone who watched Sunday's action last time out in Malaysia could attest, there also are the Ferraris to consider.

All in silver were wary after qualifying. 'We have to drive fast and clever tomorrow to keep Ferrari behind' stated Niki Lauda. 'They're (Ferrari) very quick should still be quite a close race', concurred Lewis. Nico added 'Ferrari is a threat, because they have good race pace; it's not just Malaysia it's everywhere. I hope we have a bit of an edge on them but it could be close.'

Things however weren't quite as rosy this time for those in red as in Sepang, with Merc apparently re-establishing more of a gap on raw pace in Shanghai's very different conditions. Sebastian Vettel did manage to salvage a third-place starting slot, albeit his best was the thick end of a second off the Mercs. Kimi Raikkonen however appeared to have a very different beast under him - his prancing horse much more wild - and he starts a disappointing sixth, the Williams in between (Felipe Massa ahead of Valtteri Bottas by two tenths and looking in good form).

There was admittedly evidence yesterday of Ferrari once again being possessed of superior ability to stretch out a race stint. But unlike in Malaysia the team's strategy options look limited - both Ferrari and Merc conceded afterwards that tomorrow's race is likely a stick-on two-stop (Niki Lauda joked that it only gives his team two chances to make a mistake), with both teams stating that a one-stop is, as Sir Humphrey might have had it on Yes, Minister, courageous.

Once again, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari are expected
to give the Mercs something to think about in the race
Photo: Octane Photography
One potential difference is that perhaps Ferrari can manage an extra stint on the soft tyre as opposed to the medium than can the Mercs (Nico in effect admitted after quali that his camp will be aiming for two stints on the medium, saying that the soft is 'not a good tyre here'). But on the other hand unlike in Sepang Seb will have two Mercs to clear, and the short run to turn one doesn't offer much assistance either. Moreover, Mercedes has some more raw pace to play with this time, and raw pace ain't half bad at making other problems go away. It's the closest thing F1 has to a cure-all.

And reading between the lines of the words of Lauda, Hamilton and Rosberg, while they are minded of Ferrari it seems they don't expect ultimately this time to be beaten by them.

As for the rest, Red Bull looked a bit happier this weekend though it didn't fully translate in quali, with Daniel Ricciardo starting seventh and Daniil Kvyat missing out on the top ten. Already some are beginning to murmur about the young Russian, as although the RB11 hasn't always behaved itself a few reckon that he's not really helping matters with his contribution in the cockpit. Still, we can forgive his bewilderment as presumably he'd have thought his step-up to the big team would be rather more straightforward than this.

While completing the top ten we had Romain Grosjean then the two Saubers, once again displaying the benefits of a vastly-improved Ferrari unit.

As for the McLarens, there was the odd knife out for them as the outcome in position here in China - P17 and P18 - was no better than that in Malaysia two weeks ago. But just like then there was an improvement on the stopwatch, them being a couple of tenths off getting into Q2 and 1.7 seconds off the Q1 pace-setters. It's not necessarily a perfect comparison, but in Malaysia the gaps were six tenths and 2.4 seconds respectively. And this in a weekend wherein the team wasn't expecting much improvement in advance. Both drivers again spoke of their encouragement afterwards.

Lewis Hamilton however is one who as matters stand doesn't require much in the way of encouragement. While his team mate is the one that really could do with some, and soon. But one way or another, things are rolling just for Lewis.

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