Saturday 30 September 2017

Sepang Qualifying - Taking advantage of your fortune

Lewis Hamilton bagging pole position hardly seems a surprise. This was his 70th ever, as well as his fourth in a row here. But, boy, did we have a journey getting there.

Lewis Hamilton took brought the Malaysia
weekend full circle by taking pole
Photo: Octane Photography
After his and Mercedes's dash from jail in Singapore, leaving with a 28 point championship lead, the consensus was that was that. Yet once cars started to circulate the Sepang track this weekend no one was quite as sure.

There were reasons to think in advance that Malaysia would not be a Merc cakewalk, but it was off the pace to an extent that shocked. There wasn't an obvious explanation either - nothing peculiar to short runs or to the tyres, or a lack of balance. It just lacked grip.

And Merc and Lewis's direct title rivals Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel stepped into the breach. Suddenly it threatened to be a lot like Singapore's build up - them on top and Red Bull in the mix. The third row looking possible/probable for Merc. And with it a healthy points swing was on for Seb.

But then even more suddenly - also in a bit of Singapore parallel - it all swung back. At the conclusion of FP3 this morning Seb crawled in with technical woes, leaving a race against time to get a car with a new engine in it ready for qualifying. He appeared on track early in Q1 but not for long, as he "lost drive" halfway round his flying lap and said he had "no turbo". He was never seen again - a late attempt to rejoin was aborted - and he will start last.

Thus two rounds in a row are severely compromised for an effort that barely left a point on track in the rounds before. That he'll be able to take new engine parts without penalty, that most thought he'd have to take at some point anyway, was meagre consolation.

Sebastian Vettel looked set to
dominate - until foul luck intervened
Photo: Octane Photography
"It's part of motor racing," Seb mused philosophically. "It's not what you want, especially on a day where you feel you've got it in you, you've got it in the car, but unfortunately we won't be able to prove that.

"We go tomorrow, we saved some tyres. It's a pretty bad day; the race is tomorrow."

He reckoned indeed a win is still on with a safety car; P5 without one.

Qualifying therefore suddenly was Hamlet without the Prince. Mercedes compromised as outlined; Red Bull strong but not able to crank its engines up like rivals; Kimi Raikkonen required to limit Ferrari damage. A matter of who could stride through the opened door.

Suddenly too it was tight at the sharp end - demonstrated early in Q2 by Raikkonen, Max Verstappen and Hamilton setting marks within a tenth at the top.

But then, whaddayaknow, the whole thing came full circle. Lewis found extra urge. On his first Q3 effort he set a 1m 30 dead with an ultra sharp lap, suddenly three tenths clear of Kimi and half a second ahead of the Red Bulls (and eight tenths up on his team mate). He had fortune, but boy did he take advantage of it.

And it was enough - just. Another twist threatened - Lewis didn't improve on his final run and Kimi looked like he might nab pole from him. He missed out by 0.045secs.

Toto Wolff admitted to being at a loss
on where the pace came from
Photo: Octane Photography
So how did Mercedes turn it around? "I don't know, but we did!," admitted Merc's Niki Lauda.

"This was a Lewis lap," Lauda added, "we know when Lewis puts the throttle down he really does it well. It is more the driver than the car."

Merc boss Toto Wolff thought the late afternoon ambient was a factor. "He [Lewis] put it all together, but we are left with some confusion as our car was not good.

"When the temperatures dropped, cloud cover started to come over the circuit, the car was very quick. So we need some answers."

Lewis spoke in the same vein. "We had no idea how it was going to go today," he said.

"I'm sorry for what happened to Sebastian because obviously he was very quick through practice but somehow we turned it round. The engineers did a great job. The car felt great. It's a real surprise to be up here."

The Red Bulls fill row two with Max ahead, both half a second off Lewis.

Valtteri Bottas, the rather beleaguered other Merc mentioned, starts fifth and was seven tenths off his stable mate. He ran a different aero package from Lewis (underlining how Merc was lost), something he regretted, but this sort of result is threatening to become a habit. Someone worked out it's now five qualis in the last six he's been half a second or more shy. Us considering him a championship dark horse mid year now seems a long time ago.

Esteban Ocon was another to have a strong day
Photo: Octane Photography
The next generation had its day today however - Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne start sixth and seventh, ahead of their respective team mates who are ninth and tenth. Nico Hulkenberg is in the mix as he always seems to be and starts between them in eighth.

Toro Rosso debutant Pierre Gasly impressed also, pipping Carlos Sainz in Q1 and ending up just a tenth and a half behind him in the final shakeout - him P16 to Sainz's P15.

As for tomorrow, if there is another Singapore parallel then rain and early race frolics - both frequent here - can make things look unrecognisable in a blink. That's without mentioning the front of the grid's intriguing appearance anyway. There also is little steer on race running due to yesterday's red flag/loose drain cover disruption. Mercedes as outlined is the biggest mystery of all.

And given what we saw today we shouldn't get too far ahead of ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Vettel has lost his rhythm for sure after post race mistake in Malaysia and team definitely has Quality control issues going on also.
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