Saturday 20 June 2015

Red Bull Ring Qualifying: In spite of themselves

This one was supposed to be different. And, you know, in plenty of ways it was. But even with it the end result nevertheless drips with familiarity.

Lewis Hamilton, almost in spite of himself, claimed pole
Photo: Octane Photography
In more ways than one. As not only for tomorrow's Austrian Grand Prix has the Mercedes pair got the front row of the grid all to itself yet again of them Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position, his seventh in eight rounds this campaign. Yet under the bonnet so much was not of the standard this time. Seemingly such is Mercedes's pomp right now that even when they mis-kick the ball it bobbles into the net somehow. That's what we got today.

First off Lewis for the most part looked well short of his imperious best so habitual in 2015. His practice running especially on the supersoft tyre required for qualifying was scrappy, all tank slappers and explorations of the track's run-off. In the wet-but-drying first quali session he scraped through in thirteenth place after his final lap was spoiled by a wandering Jenson Button. Then after that with the surface by now properly dry things didn't entirely improve for him as a yawning circa four tenths separated him from team mate Nico Rosberg out front every time it seemed, much of the deficit laying in the middle sector. We all recalled too that it was at this track last year where he got things wrong on the Saturday.

But Lewis, we really should learn not to doubt you. Partway through qualifying's vital part suddenly it all came together and he dipped under Nico's mark by exactly two tenths. Then we had their final runs...

At this point matters entered the realms of the surreal. First off Lewis's Merc snapped out of control under braking for turn one, something similar to his off in the quali session here last year at the following turn, perhaps related to the various goings-on with energy harvesting and the like when one hits the brakes in the modern formula.

Both Merc drivers reflected on qualifying errors
Photo: Octane Photography
It looked therefore as if an opportunity gaped before Nico to claim pole for himself, especially as he set the best middle sector out of everyone and all in was just below Lewis's mark after two sectors. But like Lewis he disappeared from the timing screens too, as he at the tricky downhill double right that ends the lap binned it himself, spearing off into the gravel. Almost unbelievably the top two were set as you were. The crescendo of the qualifying hour chopped off.

Lewis found his error hard to explain: "I don't know exactly what went on but obviously I locked the rears and snapped it around" he said afterwards. "A bit similar to what happened last year in Turn Two here so...yeah, I definitely do that quite often in this car. Not sure why. Got big feet I think."

He also reflected that for much of the time this pole didn't look likely: "Well, it was really quite a bad qualifying session all around for me. I was off Nico for three or four tenths each session and each run, each lap and I just didn't have the confidence in the balance I had at the time, and the temperature of the tyres and the brakes. So, I'm really grateful that I at least got one decent, y'know, Q3 first run lap one and then lap three. The third one being much better. I'm grateful that I got those two laps in."

Nico meanwhile was about as perplexed by his own excursion: "I knew the gap to Lewis was two tenths before that (his off). Of course there was a possibility he would improve that further and I was exactly two tenths up, so I was equal with his lap time until, like, two corners from the end. So, that meant that I had to take a little bit more risk and just over did it. I don't really know what happened. Maybe the tyres got wet on the Astroturf because I went too wide in the second to last corner and then a little bit of humidity on the tyres and maybe that caused the spin – not sure." He added too that knowing Lewis wasn't going to improve at that point would have been "just a distraction".

Sebastian Vettel couldn't capitalise on Mercedes's fumbles
Photo: Octane Photography
But there was further abnormality under the surface of the apparently tepid topline qualifying order. Even without the above dramas many were tempted in advance to think that today would finally be the day that Mercedes's qualifying run would end.

And for the car that was supposed to do this we had Ferrari. The F15-T was swift in practice, topping two of the three sessions in Sebastian Vettel's hands. It would have been the Scuderia's first pole since mid-2012; its first in the dry since Singapore in 2010. Mercedes's run of consecutive poles meanwhile stretches back an entire season and is just five short of the all-time mark. If you expand it to Merc-engined cars then the trend extends to the final race of 2013. As it was these records like ol' man river keep rolling along.

In that way we've seen before Mercedes found extra urge when it really mattered on a Saturday, and Vettel while best of the rest consistently equally consistently was a clear half second or more off whichever was the table-topping Merc. Even with the silver team fumbling the ball it still bounced nowhere near his reach; third place and 0.355 seconds off the top was all he could muster. He admitted later that simply the Ferrari didn't have the pace.

"I thought that we can probably have a bit of a word but unfortunately they were a bit too quick" he said. "We tried everything...yeah, I guess generally Mercedes-powered cars seem to be able to turn up the performance quite a bit and if you look at those two guys but also the Williams, they were a lot closer than they were in practice. So there is some work for us to do."

Man-of-the-moment Nico Hulkenberg was brilliant
Photo: Octane Photography
But his day was again better than that of his team mate Kimi Raikkonen who somehow tumbled out in the damp opening session. His (sometimes fruity-worded) incredulity was justified afterwards. "I got certain information from the team and obviously it was wrong," he said later. "The point is they sent me out too late and we missed one lap and it cost us a lot...The plan changed at one point but I was not told."

His P18 result at least though will be improved in tomorrow's starting order by penalties for two Red Bulls and two McLarens ahead. Wags have those guys starting the race in Vienna.

One thing that did run with expectations was that the other Merc-powered cars showed up well at this power circuit. Williams didn't replicate its form of last season but Felipe Massa claimed fourth while Valtteri Bottas got sixth after a final run that was on the messy side. The Finn was frustrated later.

It was the man of the hour of Nico Hulkenberg that split them, in what the chap himself reckoned was something of a miracle. The Lotus drivers will be disappointed however. Practice form suggested it could match, or perhaps beat, the Williams, but P10 and P11 with Romain Grosjean ahead was the result. In Grosjean's case he had the out though of not being able to set a time in Q3 due to a brake-by-wire problem.

Yet again though Max Verstappen impressed and will start in P7 tomorrow, once again the quickest of the Red Bull quarter (so much for the various claims from the big team's big cheeses that its woes are down primarily to the Renault motor), and indeed had the wet surface lingered for the whole hour he might have been even higher as he looked mighty in those conditions, at one point setting a mark over a second quicker anyone else's. The Toro Rosso appears able to get heat into the tyres quickly in such conditions but Max's talent and chutzpah appears to help a lot too.

Max Verstappen impressed yet again
Photo: Octane Photography
As for those at the front, despite the air of the amateur hour over that part of the pack today's qualifying session will likely do a lot to frame tomorrow's race. We saw last year that despite the big braking zones overtaking is difficult here plus once again with tyres lasting a long time one-stoppers pretty much all around can be expected, so strategy options are limited too. Ferrari as usual likely will be closer on race pace and may indeed be able to run with the Mercs indeed. But in another of 2015's recurring themes quite how Seb can usurp them remains the knotted matter.

Again, almost in spite of themselves, Mercedes and particularly Lewis look fairly well set to win out tomorrow. That's barring yet more strangeness of course. But if today is any sort of portent that won't in itself be enough.

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