Saturday, 19 March 2016

Melbourne Qualifying - Cloud with a silver lining

As the 19th century German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said, "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy". And to put it in F1 terms no new qualifying system survives contact with the sport's reality. Or at least this one didn't.

Not waving but shrugging? Lewis Hamilton
took pole in an absurd session
Photo: Octane Photography
It sounded nice in theory. The clock ticking down continuously and drivers being eliminated incrementally. But it reckoned without F1 as it is. Tyres are designed to degrade and available sets of the softest tyres are finite. These two things coming together mean one chance effectively to set a time. And it showed - today marks tended to be set early and then many under threat of elimination had given up well ahead of the cut-off time as they'd run out of tyres. Even if they had been minded to reply the new system didn't give them an opportunity to as times were too tight. Much of the qualifying hour became an absurd exercise in watching the clock ticking down as cars sat in the garage. Their inevitable exit already set.

Underlining the absurdity, only the two Mercs - not even the Ferraris in other words - went out for a final effort at the end. Then when the pole was won and we got the usual back-slapping on the pit wall, then as the drivers wandered into the weighbridge with their job done, someone noticed that there still was three minutes plus remaining on the clock as it ticked down gingerly, yet removing drivers one at a time. It rather encapsulated the farce.

Journalist Stuart Codling summed it up too: "We could make something of this. 'Capitulation Hour' - points awarded to the drivers who are first to park up." Not for the first time, F1 goes Python-esque.

Teams are amoral of course, they do what they think is best for them. And all power to them. The problem is the system.

After coming up short, Nico Rosberg did not seek to hide
Photo: Octane Photography
Toto Wolff, whose cars had just locked out the front row, called it "rubbish". Christian Horner apologised on behalf of the sport. It wasn't a good day.

It didn't even deliver on its apparent unique selling point of a jumbled grid to make tomorrow more interesting. The grid is one that the most tepid of systems could have given us; much of it is in Noah's Ark formation and the few that aren't mainly could be explained by unusual circumstances (Valtteri Bottas down in P11 made a mistake and Daniil Kvyat in P18 had a suspected problem).

There was a strong whiff of 'I told you so' in the paddock afterwards. But while recrimination doesn't really get us anywhere some of the claims were from those present at the meeting when this new system was being agreed, and from people who voted for it. Let us not forget either that this was voted through unanimously at the F1 Commission. A few, no doubt, were venturing with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision. Or perhaps were minded of covering their tracks.

But certainly engineers, and drivers who they spend a lot of time in conversation with, foresaw what we got today at least to some extent. Given in the quote at the outset they represent 'the enemy' as it were it shows the importance of bringing them into such conversations. Today we certainly also witnessed the perils of pushing a new system through too quickly.

Sebastian Vettel had much to think about afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
"I don't see the point why everyone is surprised" said Sebastian Vettel, leading the charge. "We all said what is going to happen. It happened...We were told to wait and see. Now we saw and I don't think it was very exciting."

As for what happens next, as ever in dysfunctional F1 anything is possible but the sense that this quali in its current spec can't be continued with was near unanimous afterwards (heck, it says something when even this sport's power brokers agree). "I don't like it, it's not acceptable and it's got to change. It doesn't work and it has to go before Bahrain." said Martin Brundle on TV. "It needs putting in the skip."

It's therefore hard to see how it can continue.  A 'hybrid' system where we keep Q1 and Q2 as they were today (when in fairness it wasn't quite as bad) and return to the 'old' system for Q3 - something that was actually proposed in the close season - or else a wholesale return to the previous system, seem most likely.

"I think that discussion's going to take place" said Wolff. While Nico Rosberg noted: "It's good F1 tries [ideas] but we have to go back, for the last one [Q3] especially".

But if the new qualifying was a flop at least today it found a worthy pole man. Lewis Hamilton once again blitzed the field, and his Mercedes team mate Rosberg next up blitzed everyone else. This after post-testing analysis which suggested that Ferrari could be in Merc's vicinity, and FP3 that suggested something similar. But no, on today's evidence from the mid-point of Q2 Merc had something in hand on the rest. Again. In more ways than one it seemed very familiar.

Max Verstappen was mightily impressive once again
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis as he does when content mused afterwards in his inimitable, almost dream-like, way: "They were some sexy laps, it felt so good, just flowing...". It also was his landmark pole number 50 of his F1 career.

Rosberg meanwhile did not seek to hide. "The last lap was good...just Lewis did a better job. That's it".

Rosberg insisted he still had possibilities to attack Lewis tomorrow, while Vettel reckoned he'll be closer come the race. But Lewis looks hard to beat.

And while the round reaction to on-track matters and Mercedes's dominance is ho hum, it remains highly noteworthy in its own way. "It's impressive to see how the team in the third year running now...we seem to be the quickest out there by a good margin" said Rosberg. "The risk is when you're dominating you start to become complacent, and that's a big risk always...it seems that we're able to push through".

Lewis concurred: "They've [Mercedes] raised the bar once more, in their third year [at the front]".

Showing the onward march of progress in this game too Lewis's pole time was a whole 2.5 seconds up on last year's, and some 5.5 seconds up on the best dry time from 2014.

Despite the stern expressions, McLaren was much improved
Photo: Octane Photography
As intimated Ferrari filled the second row and on today's evidence Vettel retains the Ferrari whip hand as he had upwards of three tenths over his stable mate Kimi Raikkonen. The hoo-ha also took attention away from other worthy performances, not least from Toro Rosso which made good on its fine testing form with P5 and P7 on the Melbourne starting grid. Max Verstappen leads the pair and in so doing achieved the best qualifying position for a teenager since 1961. McLaren showed up better than testing suggested, and a lot better than it did 12 months ago, as it lingers just outside the top 10 with Fernando Alonso P12 and Jenson Button P13.

In time today's goings-on will become a mere memory; and aberration presumably. And the things from on-track today such as those outlined in the previous paragraph likely will become the more instructive matters to take away. Though the continuing preponderance of Mercedes, and of Lewis Hamilton, will likely be the most instructive one of all.

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