Saturday 14 November 2015

Interlagos Qualifying - Nico delivers a bunch of fives

"Who are you, and what have you done with Nico Rosberg?" asked a colleague on Twitter at the end of Brazil's qualifying hour.

A joke of course. A little cruel too. But it was one of those jibes that becomes cruel precisely because there's a bit of truth it.

For the fifth time in a row Nico Rosberg claimed pole position
Photo: Octane Photography
Today the plot thickened yet further about the enigma that is Nico Rosberg. He took another pole position, his fifth in a row, and there seemed not the slightest extenuating circumstance. It was a straightforward tête-a-tête between him and his Mercedes team mate, or nemesis, Lewis Hamilton and whatever Lewis did, Nico did a bit more. No mistake or anything else could be pointed to. In the end the German won out by just under a tenth.

Lewis indeed admitted later that his own laps were "very good" and that Nico "just found a small piece of edge".

So to answer the original question? The man himself insists nothing has changed. Niki Lauda in his usual reductionist way said today's outcome reflects that "he's quicker, it's very simple". Nico's critics say that he can only do this with the pressure off, and point to how 2014 went - Nico stumbling from a pedestal position at the very point that the pedestal position brought a great deal to lose.

More broadly there seems a touch of David Coulthard or Carlos Reutemann about him, that there are days when he can blitz the field - and in so doing blitz the very best - and today indeed was one such day. They even might come along in succession. But somehow those days don't come along with sufficient regularity for him to win out for championships.

Whatever is the case though we won't begin to get definitive answers to these until 2016 when all start from zero again.

Lewis Hamilton's optimism for tomorrow's race was limited
Photo: Octane Photography
But the talk of it not mattering right now isn't entirely true. Make no mistake, and though he afterwards denied being concerned, what is happening right now will annoy Lewis, and that he shunned the post-quali top three photo call revealed as much. Even with titles wrapped up the battles in F1 never end. It is a truism in every seasonal sport that the final part of one campaign feeds into the next, at least psychologically. And both Merc drivers know it.

"I'm just thinking about the individual races. I'm here, I want to win, and that's it really" Nico insisted when asked about this very subject after completing his qualifying quintet. Though then he added what the rest of us were thinking after all: "also it's always better to end on a high than a low, for sure, the season, also thinking about next year".

And again whatever is the case, as previously noted if in a hypothetical world you remove Nico's unreliability in Monza and Sochi, as well as the Austin 'gust of wind', he would be just 12 points behind Lewis right now. Imagine that. All rather a long way from what we got of Lewis wrapping up the drivers' championship almost contemptuously early. In other words, a simple explanation for what we're getting is that Nico has been in good form lately and in the not-especially outlandish scenario described would be making a real fight of the title too.

But, Nico's critics counter (after pointing out the above doesn't take into account the good fortune Nico has had vis-a-vis his team mate), even if those cards had fallen Nico's way the whole 'not doing it when it matters' thing would have cut in for him again. As Jill on The Leftovers noted recently, wherever you go, there you are...

Sebastian Vettel once again was best of the rest
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis wasn't holding out massive hope though for tomorrow given the local characteristics. "It's a very short track, it's very hard to follow here, so it's not actually a great track to race at" he said. "It's hard to follow through turn 11 which means that you're far away by turn 12 and by the time you've got the DRS it's hard to get up close. So it's not the easiest place to overtake it but it's not impossible.

"So with me and Nico within a tenth of a second of each other the most likely option [to pass him] is going to be at the start and then pit stops..."

He still found small grounds for optimism however. "Last year I was strong in the race and I hope to be able to carry that through to tomorrow and try and see if I can make the difference" he added.

Nico meanwhile was rather content. "Yeah, of course pleased with today. Best place to be in for tomorrow's race. It worked well in qualifying. I was playing catch-up a little in Quali 2, that didn't quite go to plan, but then Quali 3 really got going and got some good laps in. The last lap was on the edge, there were a couple of big moments in there, but it still worked out to be a good time, so happy with that."

As the paragraphs thus far indicate this was another very private Mercedes battle for first place, and indeed was more so than usual. The Ferrari doesn't seem to be quite on point this weekend and on this short lap Sebastian Vettel in the end was upwards of half a second off the top. It was still enough to get him P3 and comfortably though.

Next up we have the two Finns who barely have been able to stop colliding in recent times, Valtteri Bottas in P4 and Kimi Raikkonen in P5, though the Brazil stewards have done their bit to head off the tension by giving Bottas a three-place grid penalty for overtaking under red flags in FP3. Felipe Massa who usually goes well here however lingers oddly down in P8 and three tenths off Bottas's best. He afterwards bemoaned traffic (indeed his near-namesake Felipe Nasr got three added to his grid place for getting in his way), yellow flags and more to the point a lack of grip. In classic Interlagos style the times between P4 and P9 were close though.

Nico Hulkenberg put in a timely strong showing
Photo: Octane Photography
As expected the Merc engines have shown up well here, as has Nico Hulkenberg in a timely fashion who is up in P6 (becoming P5 what with Bottas). Form man Sergio Perez missed out on Q3 and qualified P13 in something of a surprise, though gains two places via Daniel Ricciardo's ten place engine grid drop as well as the Nasr matter mentioned. In perhaps less of a surprise both Lotus pilots messed up qualifying and ended up fifteenth and sixteenth (though they also benefit from the Honey Badger getting a new engine).

In the non-Mercedes class Daniil Kvyat and Max Verstappen deserve shouts for bagging P7 (which becomes P6 thanks to Bottas) and P10 (which becomes P9 for the Ricciardo reason given) respectively. Ricciardo added also that the long-awaited new Renault power unit "honestly hasn't given us anything we're after". Oh dear.

McLaren however found in Brazil's qualifying that it couldn't even go through the motions respectably, as with echoes of the Mexico race Fernando Alonso's car could be seen getting hurriedly prepared before the session and then when it did kick off his machine lasted only half a lap. Alonso then sat on a fold-down chair and caught some rays apparently. Jenson Button kept going but not to much end as he could only beat the Manors. Then with apparent gallows humour the McLaren pair were soon spotted having sneaked onto the podium and celebrating on the top step. A few of the images provided today will be used copiously in summing up their wretched season. Martin Brundle for one called the goings-on "a shocker". And it takes a lot to be shocked by the McLaren-Honda these days.

As for the Mercedes camp really the only shocks around are those provided by Nico Rosberg, who right now is not getting back into his box. It shocks both in that it happened, and that right now it's refusing to stop.


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