Saturday 31 October 2015

Mexico City Qualifying - You wouldn't like him when he's angry

There's always been something of the enigma about Nico Rosberg. Not so much personality-wise, but in terms of where he actually fits as a driver in the pecking order.

Nico Rosberg bagged another pole position - his fourth in a row
Photo: Octane Photography
Some assume that his experience this season, his stable mate Lewis Hamilton cruising to the title ahead of time - wrapped up last time out in Austin - decoded much of this. That Nico's definitely of a rung below the top. But he's added some more complications lately, including today in claiming pole position for the Mexican Grand Prix. In a season wherein he couldn't buy a pole, only getting one in the first 13, he's now gone and bagged the last four. And this following a 2014 wherein he had Saturdays usually to himself. As I said, he's not easy to work out, this one.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff suggested afterwards that Nico made anger work for him this time in beating his increasingly inappropriately-titled team mate to pole. Nico himself insisted not, but he has had a lot of resolve about him this time, probably related to Austin's turn one where he felt Lewis took things too far, as well as to his own error - 'gust of wind' or no - that deprived him of the win that day and with it let the title drop to his team mate too.

Certainly the tension between him and Lewis afterwards in the press conference could, as Murray Walker used to say in his inimitable style, be cut with a cricket stump. Yet there are reasons to think there are other more standard things going on to explain this result too. Nico was in fine form in the Austin weekend until the gust of wind's late intervention while in Russia before that he led until retirement. And whatever you might think of him another of Nico's few constants is that he is rather prone to bounce back into view at the precise point the rest of us are confident that he's been put into his box.

But this whole weekend has had an other-worldliness about it. And not just because of the relative unfamiliarity of the new Mexican venue's surroundings or that the championships now are done. Something about the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez closed the pack up this time, demonstrated by that in Q1 the top 13 was covered by less than a second and Fernando Alonso ended up bumped out with a time just 1.3 secs over the leader's. It wasn't explained by compounds either as only Lewis ran only on the harder tyre. Perhaps it was something related to the ultra-low grip track as is often found with new asphalt still with bitumen near the surface. Practice running was full of incidents and a few opined that its effect was like driving in the wet.

Lewis Hamilton looked dominant,
but lost out when it mattered
Photo: Octane Photography
Also the altitude here is quite something, near enough three times higher anywhere else on the calendar. And the resultant thin air not ensured cars flew down the straights but struggled for aerodynamic grip in the corners, which no doubt exacerbated the problem described above. Mercedes still led the way of course but they didn't have a huge amount of breathing space before the rest came along. Just like the Austin race the apparently run-of-the-mill top three in the end of Mexico's qualifying disguises some of the fun in getting there.

Further the track seemed to evolve throughout, and a few reckoned - in another parallel with wet running - that last over the line would be best placed. As it was though the exact opposite happened, in that the early part of Q3 appeared to offer the best conditions and the end of qualifying rather fizzled out. Not that Nico will be complaining.

Throughout it looked like Lewis would be on top almost without trying that hard, as if with the title in his pocket he was determined to add some panache to it all. As touched upon in Q1 only he didn't run on the soft tyres and his best on the medium was still good enough for third fastest time. Then in Q2 he got his business done early in setting the quickest mark and then parking up. Nico and then later Vettel could only get about two tenths off it.

But in Q3 everything changed. Lewis's first run was scrappy and Nico got around half a second under it. Then they went again - the track being such to allow more than one 'flier' on a single set of tyres - and while Lewis sneaked under Nico's mark Nico then took around two tenths off it to go top again. Then, as outlined, matters in effect ended early.

The two Mercedes drivers will face off again
Photo: Octane Photography
"No, definitely not" insisted Nico when asked if he was inspired by anger this time. "There's no difference, it's attack like always.

"I don't really have a precise explanation [for his qualifying pace]. I just felt good all weekend. I've been quick in all different sessions and found a good balance in qualifying. So thanks to my engineers in the team I was able to push and got a really good lap in."

Lewis admitted too that errors on his part didn't explain the result. "This weekend Nico has been quick and I've just been chipping away at it" he said. "There were a couple of moments where the car felt pretty spectacular but otherwise generally there are some areas where, for sure, I could improve both in my driving and also with the set-up. But we have quite a bit of a different set-up this weekend, so perhaps the avenue I went might not be the perfect one for qualifying but it'll be good for the race."

And for all that Nico denied that anger was at play, given what went on a week ago you suspect he'll also have particular resolve tomorrow not to emerge from the opening turn anywhere other than in the lead. It is a long drag to that turn though, with plenty of opportunity for slipstreaming, and neither Merc pilot is in a position of having much to lose. Or of being terribly minded to yield. Could be fun.

Some brave soul decided to bring up Austin and all that after qualifying, and the discomfort of both protagonists was noticeable. "What's in the past is in the past and now we move forward, it doesn't change" insisted Nico. "The same as he's just said" added Lewis.

Sebastian Vettel looked well placed
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis certainly thinks he's well placed though: "Actually coming into the weekend it's one of the best spots to start, second or third because it’s a long, long way down to turn one. Just as in Russia. I don't know if it's longer than Russia but I'm quite happy with my spot. As you've said, the races have always been proved to be quite good ones for me so I'm excited for tomorrow..."

Sebastian Vettel in the end was third as he always seems to be, albeit close this time with his best within four tenths of the pole mark. "In the end we were hoping for it to be a bit closer but in the end it wasn't" he said. "I think already already in Q2, in Q1 to be fair, with the hard tyre they looked very, very quick, so it was difficult. I tried everything. I was very happy with the first attempt in Q3. On the second one I probably pushing too hard and I didn’t go any faster. Yeah, I don't think it is fair to blame it on the conditions or the track. In the end they were just a sniff too quick."

He sounded guardedly confident afterwards when asked if he could run with the Mercs in the race. "I can't predict what's going to happen but usually we're always a bit stronger, compared to them, in the race...we will have to wait and see tomorrow - but I hope so."

The Red Bulls against pretty much all expectations looked real contenders here. While most thought they'd be eaten alive on the track's lengthy straights the thin air appeared to act a little as a leveller of engines - the Renault can spin its turbo especially rapidly to make up for it some reckon - plus the Bulls' long-standing high drag is penalised less. And whatever the air is doing Red Bull can be counted upon to find grip that no one else does.

In Q3 however it appears that Merc and Ferrari cranked things up and Red Bull (or rather Renault) couldn't respond, thus both cars ended up about a second off the pace. Still fourth and fifth, with Daniil Kvyat ahead by a single thousandth of a second, is a decent outcome.

Home hero Sergio Perez was a victim of timing
Photo: Octane Photography
There's a touch of the Noah's Ark about the Mexican grid, as the Williams are the next two up with Valtteri Bottas ahead, and local hero Sergio Perez in P9 heads his Force India team mate in P10. They were scuppered by the track's unusual evolution as they waited until the end of Q3 to run when as mentioned quick times were harder to come by. Only Max Verstappen - as ever indecently fast - spoiled the two-by-two pattern in the remainder of the top ten by qualifying eighth.

Kimi Raikkonen had a tough day. Morning practice ended early for him thanks to an engine problem. He then had to do qualifying with an older unit, and then had to abandon in Q2 when the brakes decided to play up. He'll start P18 after a penalty for a gearbox change.

In another common feature of new venues the low grip track and a conservative compound selection from Pirelli means tyre degradation is likely to be between low and non-existent meaning one stop strategies are probable. Some have grumbled about graining on the soft tyre though. The medium also appears a strong race tyre. Still with the low grip, a close field and a few walls about as close safety car appearances to muddle things up don't appear out of the question.

Some rain could be about, if not to arrive in the race then to, in Vettel's words, "reset" the track prior to the race start, making things more perfidious again.

Then again, as far as both Mercedes pilots are concerned it's not just the track that they may consider perfidious.

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