Saturday 19 September 2015

Singapore Qualifying: Vettel plays the other record

It was a day on which we expected records to go. Some did go, but not those expected. Instead of longevity being established it was ended. Ended suddenly.

Sebastian Vettel ensured different records to
those expected were set today
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton did not equal Ayrton Senna's all-time mark for consecutive pole positions around Singapore's Marina Bay circuit today. Heck, not even Mercedes managed to match the Williams record for most poles on the bounce for a team. Instead the records that fell were on the flipside of these coins.

We got the first non-Mercedes powered pole since the final round of 2013 in Brazil. As well as the first not won by the works team since Austria last year.

And those records that did go were to do with the guy that took the pole instead and his team. Those being Sebastian Vettel in his Ferrari. It's Seb's first pole since that very same Brazil 2013 round. While for Ferrari the drought was even longer - its first pole position in more than three years; its first in dry conditions in almost exactly five. Yet for both driver and squad it's a place they know well - for Vettel it's pole number 46; for Ferrari it's pole number 208.

While for the old pole master Seb it was just like old times. All precision and stunning commitment. He even showed his time-honoured swagger by ripping four tenths off his mark at the last even though pole was already his. The red cars have looked to be handling beautifully here, going exactly where their drivers want them to. And of the two Scuderia pilots Seb has simply been on another level. For all that the car has been good Seb had nearly eight tenths over his team mate Kimi Raikkonen in the final reckoning, and he had something like that over him for the most part.

The familiar finger was back
Photo: Octane Photography
"It was looking good right from the offset of quali and actually from this morning to be fair" said Vettel afterwards. "The car was fantastic to drive; it just got better through qualifying. I think we got the maximum today.

"[I'm] Surprised by the margin but I think it just came together. I really had a near-perfect lap at the end. I was very, very happy with the laps I had today, especially the last one. Around here it's such a long, tricky lap; it's so easy to go just a little in too deep or push a little bit too much but it just seemed to come in the end."

The shock looked on ever since the second practice session yesterday, when the haughty silver cars appeared behind both on single lap pace and on longer runs. But Mercedes we had long since learned not to write off until the cars were very definitely on the freight plane out of the country and it was hard not to maintain this view here. Even though all of the rational evidence said that Merc indeed was in trouble this time. That it never gives itself that much ground to make up in that short a spell.

But still, surely it had something in hand? Didn't it?

No. Astonishingly the Mercedes was simply not on the pace. And as confirmed by the final qualifying result was not on it to the rather loud tune of a second and a half. A mere fifth and sixth on the grid, with Hamilton ahead, was all the team could muster. It's something even the wily Seb fell for. "It's a surprise - I thought they were sandbagging yesterday, also this morning" he admitted.

Toto Wolff struggled to explain the Mercs' lack of pace
Photo: Octane Photography
And as things stand there isn't much in the way of explanation. The best we have is to do with that perennial of tyres, in that the Merc's rears have been overheating and thus losing grip, vital at this track with its many braking and traction zones.

Boss Toto Wolff couldn't shed much light either. He said that while the team's simulation times had been good, "we just haven't been able to translate it on the track...We are lacking grip, all over".

He went on: "We've been very surprised from the beginning onwards, you start with a certain simulation of what you expect from the track and how you want to set up the car and it somehow didn't work. We took a couple of junctions and they proved to be the wrong junctions".

Lewis meanwhile had a single word explanation: "tyres".

"I don't know really what we've got wrong [with them]" he continued, "these tyres aren't working on our car, it's so finish your lap and you think there seems to be OK grip and then you see someone else a second up the road. It's really strange".

As for whether it all was an offshoot of the tyre pressure 'issue' in Monza? "I doubt it" Lewis insisted.

There was an unlikely top three today
Photo: Octane Photography
Ferrari's technical boss James Allison took a similar view. "The gap to Red Bull is more or less where it should be at a track of this ilk, the strange thing is how slow the Mercs were" he noted. "But we've been reasonably effective in Monaco, Hungary and so [it's] not too surprising that we're good here but obviously delighted by the margin".

We can probably add to the mix that the twisty and low grip Marina Bay track ain't the best for the Mercs to stretch their legs, though Allison also denied that the new Ferrari engine debuted in Monza was a chief discriminator. "The effect for horsepower here is about 0.1sec for 10bhp, it's inconceivable that you could make that difference with horsepower".

With all of these and more no doubt Ferrari leapt clean over the top of the Mercs. So too did Red Bull.

Seb's old team proved to be Seb's closest threat today. Daniel Ricciardo will start alongside him on the front row and joked on his coll down lap that "it's been a while". His final 3effort wasn't quite on point but the probability was that Vettel remained out of his reach.

The Australian was similarly incredulous with the lack of silver cars at the sharp end though. "Qualifying was exciting, to have no Mercedes up here is a surprise to everyone" he said. "I thought they were playing a few card games yesterday but it seems they are not particularly comfortable here this weekend. It's a bit of a surprise - and it's good to capitalise on that."

Daniel Ricciardo starts on the front row
Photo: Octane Photography
But as with Ferrari this isn't all about Merc dropping the ball. Red Bull indeed has been waiting for this Singapore round for a while, given it wouldn't show up its lack of Renault power as much as most other tracks plus that the Bulls' chassis has been good again since mid-season.

There then followed their team mates with Kimi Raikkonen starting third and Daniil Kvyat fourth. Kvyat looked impressive throughout - he missed almost all of FP1 too remember - and might be a little disappointed to end up at the back of this little shake out.

Elsewhere Williams again appeared to struggle on a twisty track at least got both cars into the final qualifying part and Valtteri Bottas will start seventh and Felipe Massa ninth. The ever-impressive Max Verstappen is between them. And Romain Grosjean somehow got what looked an evil handing Lotus into the top 10. Rumours have the team's Renault takeover deal finally done, or at least nearly done.

And what of tomorrow? Usually the Ferrari is if anything even better on race pace relatively speaking and the Merc drivers have a lot of cars to clear. Someone or other pointed out that tyre problems over a single lap may not necessarily repeat themselves over a race stint, plus Lewis seemed oddly relaxed after quali. Yet judging by Friday's race runs the silver cars' race runs aren't much more competitive than on a single tour. For Lewis, that much-anticipated total eclipse record of equalling Ayrton Senna's number of wins in exactly Senna's total number of starts may in fact be missed.

"You shouldn't expect any miracles...our long runs have not been very good" cautioned Wolff. Lewis too even with his upbeat demeanour doubted that the pace could be clawed back overnight.

With this it looks indeed like Seb's greatest threat will come from his old team; the Bulls if anything looked slightly quicker than the Ferraris in race trim yesterday.

Lewis Hamilton does not expect a return
of Mercedes form tomorrow
Photo: Octane Photography
But plenty can happen in a Singapore race. Overtaking is near impossible, strategy tortuously difficult and at least one safety car appearance a positive expectation. Add to this that no track is as tough on drivers or cars, and that slight errors can be and often are punished definitively. All of this totals up to far from predictable fare.

And yet, Seb seems on a pedestal. If he does lead into turn one tomorrow - and remember too that Ricciardo's starts rarely are stunners - even with (or without) the above considerations it's hard to see him being beaten. As Allison noted, in that scenario "everything's possible".

But then again if today's qualifying session taught us anything it's that old one about F1 never being predictable. Yes the mantra can wear a bit thin sometimes, particularly in times of single-car domination as we've had in extremis for the last 18 months. Often it's said too mainly inspired to drum up interest when the said interest looks to be waning. But still it has truth in it, as in this game even when things look well set it doesn't take too much to change the picture significantly. And we had that manifested today.

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