Saturday 25 March 2017

Melbourne Qualifying - Plus ca change...

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Much is different about F1 in 2017; judging by testing it was supposed to look different at the sharp end on-track too. But things die hard in F1. The identity of the guy on pole for the Melbourne season-opener is of the very familiar sort.

Lewis Hamilton remained on top
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis Hamilton - the perennial, and the guy who got pole position in the final four rounds of last campaign too - is on top still. Perhaps things are closer this year. Time certainly will tell on that one. But virtually all weekend around Albert Park Lewis has been a step ahead. And was when it mattered, as he took the top slot for tomorrow's grid with balmy comfort, by over a quarter of a second.

And he of course was buoyant. "It's been a fantastic weekend so far," Lewis said afterwards.

"I'm just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today."

Testing suggested that Ferrari had bounced straight to the front. Yesterday's practice suggested that we had in fact just the latest of Italian false dawns. Today suggested it was neither, rather was somewhere between the two.

Sebastian Vettel was able to split the silver cars to start second so it at least can be said to not be the Merc benefit run we've got used to. And the red car's improvement is undeniable. But still, offered what we've had at the start of the weekend Lewis and Merc would have snapped your hand off. And Maurizio Arrivabene's deameanour afterwards didn't suggest glad tidings about his team's progress.

Sebastian Vettel was able to split the Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb thought there was more in there today, but not enough to get the pole: "In the end, I was not entirely happy with my lap - pretty happy with the end but maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much.

"I think Lewis did a very good lap so, I would have loved to but I don't think pole was out to grasp.

"Tomorrow, I think we can do something in the race, the car feels good, we've improved it, so the pace should be better than yesterday."

Valtteri Bottas in his Mercedes debut was another to have a rather betwixt and between time of it. He wasn't quite as far off his new stable mate as the doom-mongers reckoned he would, particularly based on yesterday's running, but the gap at just under three tenths was on the outer edge of acceptability. And perhaps most regrettably he wasn't as noted able to be the next one up after Lewis, as Seb pipped him at the very last.

"Third position is not ideal, in general I am not happy for the result," he said soberly.

But he had a better time of it (in every sense) than his countryman Kimi Raikkonen, whose mark was near enough six tenths slower than his team mate's. Still it was good enough for fourth on the grid.

Valtteri Bottas was disappointed with his effort
Photo: Octane Photography
Red Bull's form did go with what testing suggested - namely a rather isolated third in the team pecking order. Max Verstappen followed in for fifth place at a respectful (four tenth) distance to Kimi. Daniel Ricciardo, atypically, binned it in the final part of qualifying and thus starts tenth.

"Of course not good enough," said Verstappen. "But after a troubled weekend, and basically I saw it coming after winter testing that this was the best we could do.

"We don't have the pace to challenge the Ferraris and the Mercedes - I'm realistic."

There were a few tales of note further back. Romain Grosjean was able to bag next up on the grid in P6 and was very happy with his effort. It likely reflected the improvement in the Ferrari power unit and the like as well as Grosjean's ever-present speed. And a shout out to Toro Rosso as well, which had an obtrusive time but it was enough to get both cars into the top ten.

The McLaren Honda wasn't quite as awful as testing indicated and Fernando Alonso salvaged P13. Stoffel Vandoorne struggled a bit more though, not helped by an early technical problem meaning he only got one crack at it and he starts P18.

Romain Grosjean did a great job
Photo: Octane Photography
Eleventh hour Sauber stand-in Antonio Giovinazzi impressed too, as after replacing the unfit Pascal Wehrlein and with only an hour of practice he got P16. He looked set to do even better, and to be the lead Sauber, but for a mistake on his final run.

There are a few reasons to think things should still go Lewis's way tomorrow. He's a step ahead as outlined, and the evidence from the long runs on Friday was Mercedes was even further ahead therein. The track's tough on fuel which should suit the Merc too. The tyres will run all day (even on the ultrasoft the degradation is 0.1sec a lap) which means one-stoppers, and overtaking is thought to be no easier this season.

Yet we can look to 12 months ago at the same venue and then Seb leading off the line changed everything - and would again especially given the considerations outlined above. We know that the German's starts are often swift; Lewis's not always... Safety cars usually are a frequent feature here, while the implications of the press-on races replacing the Pirelli conservation runs are to be seen too, not least for driver fitness.

"Looking forward to the race, it's close between us all," Lewis added afterwards. "As you can see, there's going to be a tight race this year I think". He may on today's evidence be right. But also on today's evidence he remains resolutely the man to beat.

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