Saturday 23 May 2015

Monaco Qualifying: Deja vu denied

So there were no repeats. He made sure of that.

Entering this Monaco Grand Prix weekend plenty it seemed were determined to talk about what happened 12 months ago. Nico Rosberg winning the oh-so important pole position here, aided at least in part by a trip down an escape road at the death while top of the times meaning no one - including most pointedly his team mate Lewis Hamilton - could improve. And oh how we heard about it afterwards.

Lewis Hamilton made sure that history didn't repeat
Photo: Octane Photography
And heading into the crunch part of today's qualifying session there was a creeping sense of deja vu. Just like last year Lewis started the weekend looking serene, but as Saturday went on Nico was showing signs of creeping ahead. In morning practice Nico was the quicker of the two silver cars and then in qualifying itself he topped everyone in Q1 and Q2 - Lewis periodically it seemed having reason to be dissatisfied with his tyre pressures. Just like last year too the pole battle turned out to be a private affair for the Mercedes.

Then as if to provide a flashing arrow for those who hadn't quite picked up on it all, at the end of Q2 Nico got his braking wrong at St Devote and had another exploration of one of the Principality's escape roads...

But Lewis wrenched the whole thing back when it really mattered. In the first runs of Q3 his time was 0.136 under that on his team mate. And then when they made their second efforts Nico in effect surrendered by again getting his braking wrong at the St Devote and abandoning his lap due to the time lost. The pole belonged to Lewis but he saw no harm in adding a coup de grace of taking another two tenths off his mark.

F1 has strange ability to establish records and trends that don't make a great deal of rational sense, and so it was here. Although Lewis is one who can never be ignored at Monaco, and his all-action style is perfect for the Principality's challenges, he'd never before started a Monaco Grand Prix from the front. That was another matter he corrected today.

"It's been a long long time, but I can't express just how happy I am" he said with this in mind.

The expressions were a little reversed
compared with 12 months ago
Photo: Octane Photography
He also was minded of this track's unique challenges and that for him things didn't coalesce until late, which as far as he was concerned made this pole all the sweeter. "It wasn't the easiest session, I had a lot of things that kind of easily throw you off the rhythm. And I didn't have the rhythm until the last two laps, so I came across the line just hoping that you'd got it, so this is incredibly special.

"At this track it's so hard...getting your head around it and improving, it's important to get into a rhythm and it's really important to continue to improve. So it's like climbing a ladder...and if you slide back down it's sometimes harder to get back up. We had some problems with tyres and we had some problems with some it wasn't easy, so it makes it even more special."

From the on-board shots of his pole lap it was classic Lewis too - all commitment and the car dancing on the very limit.

As for Nico things by comparison were a little yin and yang: "probably a bit the opposite to Lewis that I had a good rhythm starting off qualifying" he said, "then just lost touch a little bit towards the end."

And possibly his next comment was more revealing than he intended: "Of course you know, (I was) going for it, because I have to because I know Lewis is going to be quick so I need to go for it and it didn't work out."

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari rued the change in weather
Photo: Octane Photography
In more way than one today was timely for Lewis. Last year's notorious qualifying session was rather a hook on which much of the season pivoted. It set Nico up for a fine summer wherein he appeared to be heading right to the world championship like metal to a magnet. After Nico's fine win in Spain last time out plenty too spoke of changing moods and momentum that may be continued in this weekend at a track on which Nico has a good record. Lewis you feel checked that today.

The rest were nowhere for first place. This is despite Ferrari this morning again giving indication that it might give Merc something to think about and indeed Sebastian Vettel topped the times. But the sun went away for qualifying and the resultant drop in track temperature appeared to harm the Ferrari especially, and this was something not lost on Seb.

"I think it was a bit too cool for us today, everyone was struggling a little bit with warming up the tyres" he noted later, "it was a shame that the sun was hiding behind the clouds".

"Nevertheless it was a good session for us, and P3 is a good place to start from; hopefully we can split the Mercedes and therefore have an exciting race."

Kimi Raikkonen had an even tougher time, not helped by a slightly curious prang in morning practice, and he starts sixth.

As anticipated Monaco's unique layout with its lack of straights let Red Bull back into the picture and the two RB11s will start P4 and P5 with Daniel Ricciardo ahead. Daniil Kvyat too will be relieved to have such a strong showing after a patchy first few races for the A team. But Ricciardo was a little rueful as he reckoned P3 would have been his but for a self-inflicted fumble.

Jenson Button was another with reason to be rueful
Photo: Octane Photography
"Don't want to sound like a downer but it should be third" he said. "A miscommunication starting the lap and we didn't start in full power basically so I was two tenths slower already getting into turn one. That's two tenths we needed to be third and that's free lap time. Of all places it's not the place you want to give away grid position."

While another which was looking ahead to Monaco with anticipation, McLaren, has even more reason to be rueful. Both cars got into Q2 but therein Fernando Alonso stopped on track, possibly with an electrical problem, meaning he'll start P13 after others' penalties while Jenson Button was looking quick but was impeded by the yellow flag brought about by Nico's adventures mentioned. He'll now start P10 (again after penalties ahead) but reckoned but for the yellow the top ten proper would have been an "easy in" (with the 'e' elongated for several seconds) and that the result was "painful". His frustration afterwards was tangible.

As is often the case at Monaco there were a few heroic performances out there. Sergio Perez starts a brilliant P7 and the Toro Rossos were P8 and P10 in the order with Carlos Sainz ahead, although we found out later that the Spaniard is to start from the pit lane due to missing an early trip to the weighbridge. Even without this compared with their practice pace the result felt a little underwhelming. While F1's very own pariah Pastor Maldonado starts P8 instead. It's worth reflecting that he entered F1 with a reputation as a Monaco specialist. Whatever else you might think of him this is a track that rewards those prepared to go for it...

Pastor Maldonado made good on his
reputation as a Monaco specialist
Photo: Octane Photography
Which suits Lewis just fine too. Of course pole counts for a lot at Monaco particularly when the rain stays away and latest forecasts suggest it will. The man himself insisted afterwards that the race is long and that is true. While another curious stat that F1 has garnered is that here Lewis has only won in the Grand Prix once, and he indeed seemed minded of this even after his pole triumph: "nothing was able to get in my way today thank goodness, and I'm just sitting here thinking of all the previous years of things that got in my way or when I wasn't good enough or whatever it may be..."

Although him saying that "not even half the job is done" struck as something of an underestimation. If he noses into St Devote still in first place tomorrow it is hard to see avenues - reliability aside - via which he can be beaten. That's something, finally, that is just like last year.

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