Saturday 9 July 2016

Silverstone Qualifying - Channelling your inner Nige

We all know about Lewis Hamilton and his Ayrton Senna inspiration. He mentions it often, and even if you had up until now managed to miss it he'd noted it yet again already this weekend, by reciting that infamous "if you don't go for a gap…" line (though don't get me started on that one).

Lewis Hamilton dominated in front of his adoring public
Photo: Octane Photography
Nothing wrong with taking a Senna inspiration of course, it's Lewis's right. But whatever is the case I've long felt Lewis in fact has stronger parallels with others among the sport's revered names of the past. In this brew there's a distinct dash of the later-years Gilles Villeneuve, mixed in with rather a lot of Nigel Mansell.

Now, the parallels may not initially at least seem obvious between the cloth-cap wearing every-man 'Our Nige' and the outlandish and Holywood A-list mingling Lewis. But there are in fact plenty. Uncannily so.

Aggressive racers, astonishingly brave, something of the showman, possessed also though an emotional streak, sometimes manifested in the occasional sulk, and possessed also of a probably related tendency to divide opinion, but with a heart-on-sleeve nature that never seems contrived. And an almost unwavering - again uncanny - ability to attract drama somehow. You could be talking about either of them just as easily.

And just like Nige Lewis it seems finds extra for his home Grand Prix in Britain every time; has been known indeed on occasion to turn his local event into a crushing demonstration run. And the vast majority of those gathered on the spectator banks love him for all of this; it seems too that he loves them back. Again we could be talking about either one of them.

Aside from the stewards, of whom ironically Nigel Mansell
is one, no one got near Lewis today
Photo: Octane Photography
We got it all again in today's qualifying session. Lewis was simply on another level. For the rest, for pole at least, it was an exercise in sheer futility.

He was well ahead in Friday running, and on top too in the strange, weather-and-crash disrupted, Saturday morning practice. He let his team mate Nico Rosberg have his fun in the first part of qualifying as the German pipped him (Lewis said later he lost a few tenths by running wide at turn 3), but in Q2 he put Nico, and everyone else for that matter, into their place with a time to top the charts fully seven tenths under Nico's. Woof.

The final part started in the same fashion, but it wouldn't be Lewis if it was plain sailing entirely. That stuff about drama again. Unlike in Austria the stewards this time in Silverstone decided to make track limits at three turns a thing, and a 'zero tolerance' thing. Ironically the self-same Nige was one of them this weekend, as the driver representative. Perhaps it was appropriate that only he (with this other stewards, slightly spoiling the analogy) could provide a powerful adversary for Lewis on their British patch. As when in the vital Q3 he had set another apparently haughty initial time, Lewis it seemed had sneaked just beyond the periphery at Copse in setting it and so his mark was scratched.

"I touched the kerb but it pulled me further. It didn't feel like I was going to be running wide but the car bottomed and kind of bounced just outside the line" he said later. "The guys said 'just get a banker lap, don't go wide'. And what did I do? The complete opposite! But, anyway, it wasn't intentional..."

Lewis, eventually, didn't let his public down
Photo: Octane Photography
There was an almost tangible intake of breath in the galleries as his time disappeared almost Orwell-style; suddenly with mere minutes left Lewis had no time on the board and as a result no room for error. One could hardly help thinking back to 24 months ago at this venue, when Lewis looked similarly imperious only for another self-inflicted misjudgment at the last to deny him a good starting slot. That stuff about attracting drama, as I said.

But this time, not a bit of it. Lewis - even though by his own admission he was aiming for something of a 'banker' lap - went around and did a slightly better time than the one that had been taken away. Nico again got nowhere near. Order was restored and the crowd released spontaneous joy. Lewis's three-tenths advantage wasn't quite as far clear of his team mate next up as the gargantuan 1.9 seconds Mansell managed in 1992, but it still felt comfortable.

And just as Mansell used to forever talk of the inspiration of his home public watching on, which he actually reckoned was worth a few tenths a lap to him, Lewis also doesn't miss opportunities to pay tribute to his local flock. Though Lewis of course does it in rather different, more mystical, terms to Nige.

"Firstly I want to say how amazing and grateful I am for all the fans that are here this weekend" Lewis said at the outset of the 'top three' press conference. "From Thursday until today, just the biggest crowd that I think I've ever seen. The energy and the wave that they send is just mesmerising. So big thank you to everyone that is out there for the positive energy.

Nico Rosberg was rather on a hiding to nothing today
Photo: Octane Photography
"A lot of pressure for that last lap. I was just sitting in the garage and I knew that I couldn't let the guys down as on the first lap I had. The second lap wasn't as good but I was obviously making sure I was cautious, making sure I got that lap in.

"Not the cleanest qualifying session. I think we had really good pace..." Quite. "Nico knew I had that pace and it wasn't a small little gap, it was a good gap. So I wanted to go out and do at least that, if not better, and so that's what I did".

As for Rosberg, perhaps appropriately for one with a number six on his car, his role was rather that of Nelson Piquet or Riccardo Patrese. He tried of course, but it seemed rather that he was on a hiding to nothing. His rather sanguine demeanour afterwards suggested he might have known as much.

"That [the Mercedes] felt very special out there today. Then, just wasn't the best day out there for me" Nico admitted. "Congrats to Lewis who did a good job here and that's it."

Another parallel with the past is that just like the Williams used to be every time seemingly in Britain, the Mercedes was by a long way the thing to have here, the mighty fast turns suiting it just fine. Some yesterday tentatively ventured that the Red Bull could be an irritant at least to them. Again, not a bit of it. In the end the rest weren't even within a second.

Max Verstappen out-qualified team mate
Daniel Ricciardo for the first time
Photo: Octane Photography
The Bulls were the next up though and will fill tomorrow's starting grid row two. And if of course they manage to leap ahead of the Mercs off the line as the Williams did last year - and the Mercs' starts haven't always been stellar this campaign - then it could make the day interesting. It'll likely take that though.

Max Verstappen was the first of the two - the first time he's done that at Red Bull - and reckoned he got some overdue even luck. "I think in general I have been a bit unlucky the last two qualifyings but in the end the race pace was always very promising and it all went well, so I wasn't too worried" he said. "Today I think was especially a very good qualifying, I really enjoyed it. The car was performing as it should be. I think we were very strong compared to other competitors behind us, so I can be very happy with P3".

As for the Mercs? "Those guys...seemed like they had a turbo button or something".

Ferrari's woe continued, as again Sebastian Vettel's Saturday was tainted at source by a five place grid penalty, as his gearbox packed up in morning practice. His earned sixth place therefore converts to starting 11th. Kimi Raikkonen also had a lairy time as it looked for a time that he wouldn't make it out of Q2, thanks to mistakes on his first two efforts therein. As it was he salvaged that as well as salvaged fifth place in the end which was ahead of his team mate even before penalties were applied. He spoke later of the team struggling in Silverstone's windy conditions. Vettel blamed himself for not splitting the Bulls.

It was another difficult day for Ferrari
Photo: Octane Photography
There is something of the yin and yang about Jenson Button's home race fortunes held alongside Lewis's. As if Lewis is Nigel Mansell then Jenson is much more Graham Hill, and for Jenson it's worse even as he's never so much as placed on the podium at this one. Few of his experiences here will have been worse than today's though, as he sat in the garage in Q1 as others pipped his time to send him out early - McLaren's second qualifying goof-up in a week (though Jenson later claimed it owed something to the team working on a loose rear wing). Jenson then did literally an about turn walking down the pit lane to the media pen, in order to suit up again as it looked like perhaps Kevin Magnussen, one of those who had pipped him, might have his time scratched (those track limits again). But no, fate it seemed was yanking Jenson's chain.

Fernando Alonso in the other McLaren has looked mighty all weekend though and got into the qualifying top 10 again. He starts ninth after the 'times-removed-for-track-limits' tombola finished, and indeed he would have been two places higher but for falling foul of that very thing at Stowe.

As for tomorrow, more of the same for Lewis at least is expected. "Tomorrow, as always, is going to be a very tough race and it's important that we do our due diligence tonight and tomorrow morning and understand the strategy, the tyres", Lewis started, before getting close to the nub. "Yeah, I'm going to give it everything I've got" he went on. "My long run pace yesterday was really strong. I think I've got the car in a real nice place, you know balance for both qualifying and the race. So, we shall see, but we've obviously started on the right foot and I can't wait to see everyone tomorrow."

Nico's prediction meanwhile had a suitably wistful air about it: "you know, tomorrow still all to play for and definitely still pushing".

Rain - always a possibility here - or something else strange surely are the only things that can stop Lewis. And if he does win he will achieve a hat-track in British Grand Prix victories; in another parallel with the past he'd be the first to do so since another home hero Jim Clark did it in the 1960s. Just like Our Nige used to be, in front of his people Lewis simply is on another level.

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