Saturday 8 April 2017

Shanghai Qualifying - Significance below the surface

You might think you've seen this one before. But such thoughts can be deceptive. Sometimes the continuations can be just as significant as the variations. Perhaps more so.

Lewis Hamilton was magnificent in getting another pole
Photo: Octane Photography
On one level you could copy and paste most of what happened in the first qualifying session of the season, in Melbourne two weeks ago, and adequately cover quali hour number two in Shanghai today.

Lewis Hamilton took pole position for the Chinese Grand Prix by a couple of tenths, a lot like he did in Australia. This is significant enough in itself, not least as it's his sixth pole position on the bounce, a run only bettered in history by Ayrton Senna, as well as is the sixth straight pole at this track for Mercedes and Lewis's sixth overall here.

Yet greater significance herein is that while Lewis has had access to fine Mercedes machinery in recent times today's pole felt a lot like it was about him. His vital laps at the end were super smooth and ultra fast. And his personal contribution made the difference.

"I don't know about textbook," said Lewis later when it was suggested his pole lap was thus, "but it was very close. We knew that the Ferraris had been quick...

"Each time I went out I eked out a little bit more time. The first lap in Q3 was a really good lap, and then I went back out and was two tenths up.

"Now one small mistake or loss of a thousandth can put you one step back and that's eight metres [on the grid]."

Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari have shown
that Australia was no one-off
Photo: Octane Photography
All this too holds even greater significance. Because all day indeed (yesterday's running was a write-off thanks to weather) it was Ferrari that once again looked the quickest thing out there, habitually topping timing screens and appearing nailed to the track, particularly at the rear. It looked like it would stay that way for a lot of qualifying too, and the Scuderia in Sebastian Vettel's hands even topped Q1 on a slower tyre compound.

But again just like in Australia a fortnight ago Mercedes, and particularly Lewis, found additional urge at the last of the quali hour. Just like in Australia too however Vettel pipped the other Merc of Valteri Bottas to second place at the very last breath - this time by a whole thousandth of a second (which Merc calculated to translate to 5.9cm). Just like in Australia that could prove vital. Just about everyone afterwards was talking in such terms.

And, to bring us back to our original point, perhaps today's biggest take-out is that very fact that things haven't changed much from the Australian season opener. It's highly significant, as it suggests that the Ferrari revival is by no means a one-off peculiar to Melbourne's many peculiarities. It's here for a while.

Seb also thought there was more in there in his final effort today. "I enjoyed it a lot, if we could have been a bit quicker at the end I would have enjoyed it more," he said afterwards. "The last corner, maybe I lost a little bit and chickened onto the brakes too soon."

Can Ferrari chase down Mercedes in the
race, as in Melbourne?
Photo: Octane Photography
As just like in Australia the assumption around is that Ferrari will come on stronger relatively in the race. Seb indeed, appropriately for one in red, echoed Scarlett O'Hara - stating on his cool down lap that tomorrow is another day. "In qualifying, we lack a bit and in the race it is a close match," he noted later.

Lewis's eyes though clearly are sparkling at the battle. "It's more exciting than ever for me," he added, "we're really fighting these guys, it's amazing. And I think it's what racing's all about."

In something that meanwhile feels longer established while Kimi Raikkonen in the other Ferrari looked a contender both in morning practice and in the first parts of qualifying he faded from the pole fight when it really mattered. In the end he was half a second off Lewis's mark. It was still enough for his minimum P4 slot.

In another continuing theme from round one Red Bull was next up albeit at a distance after the two leading teams, followed by Williams which was equally comfortably spaced from the midfield pack. Daniel Ricciardo bagged fifth on the grid followed by a half second gap to Felipe Massa's Williams in sixth. Lance Stroll in the other Williams looked far improved from his Australia debut, though he was another to fade in Q3 and he starts tenth. Nico Hulkenberg deserves a hearty shout for getting his Renault into a P7 starting slot, having performed well all day.

Fernando Alonso once again far outperformed his machinery and got P13 on the grid, and even got into the top ten of Q1 having by his own assessment driven "like an animal". No one argued. Though we also should feel for his McLaren team mate Stoffel Vandoorne who still has massive potential but hardly could have asked for a more trying F1 baptism - in a dog of a car and with his direct comparison Alonso performing miracles...

Nico Hulkenberg put in a fine job to get seventh
Photo: Octane Photography
Just like in Melbourne qualifying, one Red Bull was compromised though. Max Verstappen could only get next to last (though he gains a few places thanks to others' penalties). He had to abandon his first run with an engine software problem dropping him two cylinders, and while he appeared later his first lap wasn't good enough to get out of the drop zone and any lingering thought of progress was dashed when Antonio Giovinazzi rearranged his Sauber heavily at the last corner. Ironically it got Giovinazzi into Q2 in theory at least, though as well as subsequent quali running being out of the question he'll likely face a gearbox penalty too.

The late red flag contributed to other unlikely Q1 drop-outs, such as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Ocon.

At least though it'll give us some fun presumably tomorrow, as well as a real steer on the extent that these latest F1 cars can actually race each other. If even Max starting from the back can't overtake then F1 has a real problem.

That's assuming rain stays away. Which forecasts suggest it won't. This could provide the big variation from a fortnight ago.

Rain of course adds various additional variables, but if the Ferrari looks nailed in the dry it should also looked nailed in the wet, or more so than the rest in any case. Seb indeed thought so "No matter what the conditions are, the car is working so then we will try to do the fastest race," he promised.

The Ferrari's rear grip will be especially helpful on a slippery track. Plus only the Scuderia has meaningful track running on Pirelli's latest brand of full wet tyres (Lewis only has a single out lap as reference).

On the flipside though Lewis will likely have track position and all the benefits of visibility, plus the Merc is thought to benefit relative to Ferrari when temperatures drop - though standing starts after safety cars in the wet mean Lewis's lead from the off isn't a stick-on.

"There's going to be lost of's not easy to gauge," said Lewis on that very matter of wet launches. "We have clutch you pull at 100% and you have to drop it at a certain target and there's no reference points, and it's behind the steering wheel so you're just guessing...the difference between two per cent can make a big difference."

But not much about who'll prevail at the front in Grands Prix in 2017 can be predicted confidently. That's the beauty of it. Small percentages indeed are making a big difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment