Saturday 15 April 2017

Sakhir Qualifying - Valtteri comes to the party

The story could have been achingly familiar. One in which thoughts of a challenge to the Mercedes were dashed. Just like happened at this track last year. And the year before. The Sakhir circuit is a place where Merc likes to snatch hope from its rivals - and of a few others - that it's about to be usurped.

In Bahrain qualifying Valtteri Bottas came to the party
Photo: Octane Photography
It did just that in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix, but the story even so was not familiar. As for the first time since his promotion to the Brackley squad Valtteri Bottas stepped up. And stepped up all the way to pole position. His first ever.

Our tantalising Mercedes vs. Ferrari scrap, new for 2017, has from many viewpoints been distilled to Lewis Hamilton vs. Sebastian Vettel. On the basis of the opening two rounds one had good reason to think that way. But, despite some appearances, F1 can never be said to be altogether predictable. And in today's qualifying session the embattled Finn, still new in the Merc squad, in the nick of time reminded us that we can't be necessarily quite so reductive.

Just as in China though the biggest take out of all lay perhaps away from the main headline. We know that Merc even this campaign has maintained a qualifying edge, and that Ferrari will at least be closer in the race tomorrow. But today the Scuderia's best was half a second shy of the Mercs - the biggest gap of this season so far, and at a track that was supposed to suit Ferrari as well as where it brought wing and floor upgrades with which it was said to have 'struck gold'. Little wonder the chins of those in red were rather on the floor afterwards.

But while this was going on the discerning noticed it nevertheless wouldn't be a Lewis shoo-in, as his new team mate, in comparison with previous rounds, was sneaking up on him.

From Q2 onwards today Bottas's lap times were very much in nip and tuck - and Lewis-bothering - territory. It continued that way in the grid-forming Q3. Hamilton beat Bottas by half a tenth on their first goes; on their second both improved but Valtteri pipped his haughty stable mate by 0.023secs to make pole his. The Englishman had an iffy middle sector, but nothing should be taken away from Valtteri who for the first time this year was in place to take advantage of such a sliver-like opportunity.

Bottas was, as you'd imagine, very pleased with his effort
Photo: Octane Photography
And today also continued the sense that F1 in 2017 is by accident or design (more likely the former) living a charmed existence. Even reclaimed Merc dominance comes with a certain frisson.

Bottas amid his breakthrough triumph remained undemonstrative is that very Finnish (and Valtteri) way, but still his contentment was discernible. "Woo! Thanks guys, really happy," he said - somehow still deadpan - on his slow down lap.

And he continued the theme afterwards. "It took me a few races to get pole but hopefully it's the first of many," he noted. "Thanks to the team for giving me this great car."

It was timely as well, given that a grand total of two rounds into his Mercedes career there had been a distinct feeling already of vultures circling the Finn. Yes F1 is a very silly place.

And if anyone is good for such a bounce back it is the unflinching Valtteri. After his embarrassing spin behind the safety car last weekend in China by all accounts Bottas accepted the error, learnt from it, and moved on. All the way to the top.

"I definitely now feel much more comfortable in the car than qualifying in Melbourne," Bottas continued. "The more time you spend with the car and driving it, you get more at one with the car.

"If you have a good or bad weekend before, if you have a struggle in the last race it's nice to start the next weekend in a good way".

Lewis Hamilton was magnanimous at his run of poles ending
Photo: Octane Photography
Lewis meanwhile was magnanimous, not letting on too many sulks at his run of poles - at six - being ended. "He's been working so hard and today he was just quicker and did a better job," Hamilton said.

"The first sector was my weaker point. I'll work on it for tomorrow. The second and third ended up being quite good, just overall a little bit down. That's how close qualifying should always be - it forces us to be on the limit. I'm genuinely happy with the job I did."

Perhaps he was minded of the big picture. As outlined it was those in red that had more reason to be unhappy with today's lot, and while Vettel also was typically brave-faced, even he admitted that the extended gap to the silver cars was rather a slap in the face.

"I was a bit down," admitted Seb on the subject of his deficit. "Four tenths was a lot more than expected given how good I felt.

"On the last run, I tried probably too hard everywhere, we had nothing to lose. I tried a bit harder but didn't work, was slightly slower. Being a tenth quicker [wouldn't be] good enough but I tried."

When asked where he was losing time to the Mercs Vettel conceded it was "a little spread everywhere".

Ferrari, and Sebastian Vettel, will be concerned
at the size of the gap to Mercedes
Photo: Octane Photography
Apparently a Merc engineer let slip on the team radio at the end of a practice session yesterday that it had a half second gap to Ferrari in hand this time. So it proved. The race is still is to come, wherein few doubt the red cars therein will be stronger relatively speaking. Also both Ferrari pilots spoke of understeer in their machines, and as Merc boss Toto Wolff pointed out that may be indicative of a set-up more geared to protect tyres over a race stint.

But it may be worth reflecting that as intimated in 2015 and 2016 we came to Bahrain thinking Ferrari would face down Merc at last, and Merc instead both times reestablished an advantage that it never really relented for the remainder of the campaign... Today certainly had a fork-in-the-road air about it.

For the first time in 2017 Seb therefore tomorrow enters a race day with two Mercs to clear, vastly reducing his options. Then again the run to turn one here is long and Ferrari launches are good. Plus Seb unlike Lewis will be starting on the clean side of the track (and it'd be just like Seb to find fortune from starting a place lower than usual...). In addition tyre wear here usually is tough (more advantage to Ferrari) and it's not clear whether one or two stops will be required.

"Today we had a margin to the Ferrari but generally in race they tend to be closer," reckoned Lewis. "It will definitely be a close battle.

"I don't know how their long runs were but I think they were good. It will be interesting to see temperatures and we will hopefully have a great battle."

Red Bull has stepped up in Bahrain somewhat
Photo: Octane Photography
Adding to the 2017 frisson there was evidence in Bahrain of the Red Bulls finally awakening. Practice suggested the Milton Keynes pair was much closer to the 'big two' teams. It was anticipated that the Bulls wouldn't be able to crank up their Renault power units in quali like Merc and Ferrari can, and so it proved. But Daniel Ricciardo still did enough to sneak ahead of Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari and get fourth of the grid, breaking the Merc/Ferrari quali quadropoly in 2017 for the first time. It was something that even the Australian called "a bit of a surprise".

The eight tenths gap between Red Bull and the front still is not to be ignored but it's far improved on the 1.3 seconds of China and Australia.

Max Verstappen however was less content. "I got screwed, the rear tyres were too cold to prepare the lap," were his words on his inappropriately-named cool down lap. He said later it was due to having to create a gap to Felipe Massa ahead before the lap started. Sixth place, a tenth off his team mate and Kimi, was Max's lot.

Elsewhere, Renault out of nowhere has found pace this weekend, not least in Nico Hulkenberg's hands. Having not managed a single Q3 appearance in 2016 today like busses the Enstone team got two, with Hulk ending up P7 and Jolyon Palmer getting P10 - his own first ever final part of quali appearance (albeit blotted by selecting the wrong engine mode for his Q3 run). The German described his own lap as "the maximum" as well as "seriously, together with Brazil 2010, the best lap in my career," when of course he bagged a pole.

Romain Grosjean deserves a shout too, as after spending most of the weekend complaining, crashing and missing braking zones, he got it right when it matters and he will start tomorrow in ninth. And this when his team mate starts last... Williams meanwhile you continue to suspect has a much better car than its drivers are making it look in outcomes - Massa got P8 and Lance Stroll P12.

There were surprise drop outs in the first part of qualifying, not least Sergio Perez who got onto the podium here in 2014 and the Force Indias had looked strong in practice. Also Carlos Sainz was well on the way to get out of Q1 as well, he'd set a purple time in the opening sector indeed, before stopping with some technical problem before the end of the lap.

But at the front F1 this year has another feel good story. Of a nice guy - and a talented one - bouncing back and showing the premature doubters to be just what they are. Things (or should that be Finns..?) could only get better for Valtteri Bottas. And today they did.

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