Malaysia, Sepang – Round 02, Qualifying

Posted: March 24, 2012 in 2012, Formula 1, Races and Results
Tags: , , , ,

What a thrilling qualifying session… One of the best I’ve seen in recent memory, with 4 tenths of a second covering 1st to 8th place… Yesterday we had predicted that pole would be around the 01:36.4 mark, so we were reasonably close (Hamilton’s pole laptime was 01:36.219), we are therefore able to confirm in a 2nd race in a row that the 2012 cars are about 1.6 – 1.7% down in performance in comparison to the 2011 cars. There are a few key observations I wish to make regarding today’s qualifying:

1. Hamilton lost a couple of tenths in the last corner of his pole lap, by locking the brakes and sliding, which means that the pole could have been as low as 1:36 dead. This is further supported by Vettel’s lap (01:36.634) on the hard compound, which is said to be around 0.5 seconds slower than the medium compound. Theoretically, therefore, Vettel could have also done a lap in the 01:36.1 bracket. In practice, however, this is debatable. Perhaps Red Bull weren’t very comfortable with the medium compound, and couldn’t extract enough laptime to justify starting the race with it. Vettel’s run on the medium tyre in Q2 was a bit underwhelming, and perhaps that’s what forced Red Bull to decide to gamble with the hard tyre in Q3. In hindsight, seeing the kind of lap time Vettel was able to extract, perhaps it would have been wiser to go for the medium compound, but it will all be judged on how the race evolves tomorrow.

2. For the 2nd time in a row Michael outperforms Rosberg in qualifying – even more comfortably this time. Both drivers have been fairly evenly matched throughout the practice sessions, Q1 and Q2, but Michael was, once again, able to dig deeper in Q3 and produce a very good lap. This is exactly the opposite phenomenon of what we were treated to last year, when Michael would reach his maximum in Q1 and Q2 but Nico was invariably able to get more laptime out of the car in Q2 and Q3 (you can refresh your memory by visiting our 2011 season statistical analysis). Michael’s lap in Q3 looked inch perfect, and I don’t think there was much more time that could be drawn from the car. In any case, it’s great seeing Michael at the sharp end of the grid, which at the age of 43 is simply a mind-boggling achievement. I simply can’t get my head around it.

3. Williams need at least one driver who knows what he’s doing. Before the season started I was of the opinion that Senna deserved a decent chance with a solid F1 team, but after what I’ve seen so far, I am reluctantly willing to admit that he just doesn’t cut it. Both cars should have been in front of Alonso and Perez, yet they both failed to make it to Q3. Maldonado’s mistake ruined Q2 for a lot of people, including Mercedes who had to use another set of medium tyres to get through. Pastor, speaking about his Melbourne mistake, said that he learnt from that mistake. Well, if mistakes are lessons, Pastor should have a couple of effing PhDs by now. The harsh truth is that neither driver can do what Williams desperately need: score points, consistently. It’s a shame having to watch Williams throw away a perfectly promising season. I presume it’s impossible to kick either driver out at this moment, so one can only hope that Pastor will try to minimize his mistakes, because his baseline, raw speed seems to be pretty decent. Senna needs at least half a second more in terms of raw pace, and I’m sorry but there’s no way in hell he can find that in himself. Please give Valteri a chance, Williams…

4. There is a huge gap between the top runners and the midfield. Ferrari’s best was still 1.347 seconds off the pace, and that’s utterly deplorable. Felipe performed better this time, his lap time just a few tenths shy of Alonso’s best. It was obvious that Felipe was extremely downbeat throughout the session, so credit where credit’s due: to be within a few tenths off Alonso’s best whilst under that amount of pressure is commendable. Alonso finished (just) ahead of the midfield pack, which is the best one can expect from Ferrari at this point. The only stand-out performance of qualifying from that midfield pack was Sergio Perez, who came very close to beating Alonso for midfield top-dog honours.

5. The order at the top is very difficult to call at this moment. Even McLaren are not in the clear. Although they secured their 2nd 1-2 in a row, their gap to Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus is too close for comfort. The in-season development pace will therefore be crucial in determining the outcome of the championship. Ferrari hope that they can be defensive in the first races and stage a comeback at the 1st European races, but I believe that’s overly optimistic. It’s a race between McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull, with a big question mark hanging over Mercedes’ race pace. Allegedly they have been focusing on race setup this weekend, so the race is going to provide us with a lot of answers, should it remain dry.

6. I have rarely seen anything as scary as Force India’s suspension wobble as Di Resta went over the kerbs of Turn 7. I hope someone with more technical expertise can explain why the front left suspension started wobbling so much. I wonder if it’s a case of a badly tuned interlinked suspension. The only sure thing is that Force India have taken a huge step backwards this season, and their goal to reach P5 in the constructors championship looks silly. They will have to overtake Sauber, Williams and either Ferrari or Lotus to achieve that. Given Vijay Mallya’s much publicized financial troubles, it doesn’t seem likely.

So, what to expect from tomorrow’s race? There are 3 key factors that will determine the outcome:

(a) Weather: If it rains, the race will become unpredictable and chaotic, because when it rains in Malaysia it really pours.

(b) Start: If Mercedes (Schumacher in particular) get one of their customary good starts, then it may create some opportunities for other teams to challenge the McLarens. I am not convinced that Mercedes have the race pace to be at the front and stay there, but I will be more than happy to be proven wrong. Vettel is a real dark horse starting from 5th, on the harder rubber.

(c) Tyre degradation: If the race is dry, I expect several teams to find themselves having to pit in earlier than ideally. I expect all front-runners to go for 3 pit stops, including Perez who was brave enough to go for a Q3 lap time on the medium tyres.

After such a thrilling qualifying session, with a different winner in each segment (Q1, Q2 and Q3) I am really looking forward to the race tomorrow. If it’s dry, we will be able to almost finalize our pecking order for the start of the season. If it’s wet, however, at least we will get some exciting racing… 🙂

  1. Roger says:

    Any thoughts on how (if I remember correctly) Webber was able to beat everyone’s sector3 time in Q1 by a massive 0.4 seconds, and yet he was the only driver to record a *slower* time in Q2? Seems strange, but I’m not sure what tyres he used in Q1 and Q2, and if that played a role?

  2. Fedja says:

    I will totally agree with you about the qualifying session, it was earth shattering! I am incredibly suprised that Michael, aged 43, can pull out the good stuff, even more in this blistering heat, beating Rosberg. Do you think that has to do with the tyres this year, because they are closer to what Michael drove in his “final” years at Ferrari. Do you think he could renew his contract? I also think if he keeps doing this, Rosberg will be under much more pressure and maybe make more mistakes…not that I’m against Rosberg, that’s just my opinion. Do you think we will have a crash at the start?:D Great blog really, I visit it regulary, too bad for Di Resta he really hurts my fantasy league odds.
    Cheers from Sarajevo

    • abu says:

      Thanks mate… Yes, I think there’s a chance he will renew his contract, but it will depend on two things: (a) if he’s still having fun and isn’t missing his family terribly and (b) if he can realistically hope that the car will challenge for the championship in 2013.

  3. Olorin says:

    I completely agree with your 3rd Paragraph about Willimas. That car was capable of P9 today. Williams’ race pace seems to be better than its qualifying, so I am hoping for a top10 position tomorrow, without driver mistakes.

  4. Tudor says:

    Great comment today and good analysis overall. I’ve been following your blog from the beginning of the winter tests and you have done a very good job on offering reliable analysis. I really hope Mercedes have the race pace, not necessarily for Michael (I am a fan) but because I think it would be much interesting to see a 3 team fight for the championship. I do agree with you on the development race, I think it is going to be a crucial factor this year – however I can’t really see how Mercedes has developed last year, compared to the others. It is clear that McLaren won that race last year and that’s probably why they are in front now. I also don’t get the tyre issues – I saw Nico Rosberg say that in the race you have to be very very careful with the tyres, you can’t push to much because they will degrade rapidly. It seems to me that now the best would be the most cautious or careful driver (of course taking into consideration the car also). Isn’t this against the spirit of the sport – I mean now you can’t drive your car to the limit because the tyres won’t hold? Maybe I am biased on this, being a Schumacher fan, I hate when the tyres ruin the race, but I always thought that the fastest driver should have the best chances of winning? an yes it is astonishing that given a proper car he can keep up with the likes of Hamilton, Button and Vettel – mindblowing

    • abu says:

      Hi! Thanks for your comments my friend… 🙂

      I slightly disagree with you on the tyre issue. I don’t think that degradation is such that it becomes a concern to the point that it dominates the way a driver approaches a weekend. The 2012 Pirellis are not that bad, no matter what we keep reading. Furthermore, I believe that tyre management is one of the most important skills that a racing driver has to possess, and in fact it dominates other racing formulae. In the past, there have been many races and even championships that were won or lost on tyre management. Characteristically, I remind you the 1986 Australian GP (Adelaide) that was won by Prost, who also secured the championship, because Mansell’s tyre blew up and Piquet had to change his as a precaution.

  5. mozart06 says:

    I think there was potential in sector 2 for MSC. With a real dreamlap a high 1:35 would be possible.

  6. Genc says:

    I have an idea about the problem of Force India’s wobbling that we’ve seen. I think the problem lies to the Caber setup. I don’t have a picture to show but for sure they are in lack of aerodynamic grip therefore they’re more relying on mechanical grip.

    The front wheel camber angle was at maximum notch, probably around -1 degree. In order to come out of the Curve 8 full gas, the drivers break ahead of Curve 7, one gear down, and then full steam ahead. But the asphalt at breaking zone before Curve 7 is very wavy therefore running high Camber and turning very sharply really puts the Shock Absorbers into very high stress. Considering the waviness of the asphalt, they have to put shock absorbers and anti-rolls into a very soft configuration. Otherwise, there is not chance to get grip other than this for the car would literally go straight away, we would have seen massive understeer.

    So to sum up, I think that, aggressive Camber + loose Bump/Rebound Suspension & Anti-rolls, caused the wobbling.

  7. schumaster says:

    I know that it was just qualifying, but that schumi lap was as you said inch perfect and in his interview MS was hinting that they did sacrifice some qualy performance in favour of the race one….I do hope that he’s right!!! again, nice write up my friend!!! loving your articles 😀

  8. Talisman says:

    Hey Abu

    I have always thought Maldonaldo fast but slightly unpredictable while Senna is nice but not that quick. The Venezuelan impressed me greatly against Rubens and I don’t think it coincidence that for 2 races so far he has been the quicker by far of the Williams duo. I think this season is where Senna’s bluff is called and his lack of talent becomes obvious to even the most ardent fan.

    Good to see Schumi back at the front, hopefully someone will give the McLarens something to worry about. I think it was Schumi who said the EBD cars were different to anything else he’d ever driven and that this season’s cars felt like ‘normal’ ones that he could get his teeth into and work out. Or maybe it was Webber, can’t remember. I think a few old-timers who had been written off prior to this season might impress this year (Massa excepted).

    • abu says:

      Yes, your EBD comment is intriguing. It will be interesting to see should Mercedes exploit more the concept of blowing the floor (following the footsteps of McLaren and RBR) if Nico will start having an advantage again over Michael…..

      • Talisman says:

        Well I think the younger Playstation generation drivers probably had no problem at all with the EBD cars where the rear end was stuck to the floor like glue but find it trickier with a lively rear end.

        My hunch is tomorrow that the Saubers will do well BTW. Kamui tweeted that he had broken suspension components (either the damper or antiroll bar) in FP3 and qualifying and yet he still managed to match Perez in sectors 1 and 2 in Q2 and was much quicker than him in Q1. Hopefully they’ll score good points tomorrow.

  9. JS says:

    As always an analysis with deep insight – it is a pleasure to read your articles. I really prefer them to many media articles. 🙂

    It was indeed a very thrilling qualifying session. I haven’t expected the Mercedes in the second row because I thought that they would lack qualifying speed due to their concentration on a better race setup because of their tyre issues.
    The Ferrari press statements sound like they hope for rain. Are there any hints that they are gambling with the setup to prepare for a race in the wet?

    I feel a bit sorry for Williams, the team clearly deserves better drivers than they have at the moment. I really don’t like the trend towards young and green drivers. Especially the midfielders should rely on more experienced drivers with a good pace and the maturity not to do too many stupid mistakes. I really can’t understand why drivers like Heikki Kovalainen or Timo Glock have to drive inappropriate, less competive cars, doing a superb job while others in the grid aren’t able to extract the maximum out of their cars. At least Maldonado’s raw speed is decent even though he is making too many mistakes, but I am not impressed by the pace of Ayrton Senna’s nephew. Hiring an experienced guy could make the difference between Williams and the rest of the midfield. At the moment it seems that Rubens was right, when he said that Williams should stick with him for his input in terms of developing the car. All in all I believe that Williams has the worst driver combination in the grid with the exception of HRT and that’s a shame for a team with such a fine tradition. I can’t imagine Senna and/or Maldonado giving decent input to help the team improve the car. I hope that the other teams won’t overtake Williams in the long term…

    • abu says:

      Cheers mate… 🙂

      With regards to Ferrari, I don’t think they have gambled on wet setup. They are genuinely that much slower, I’m afraid.

      With regards to Williams, I agree 100% with your comments……..

      • JS says:

        I was pretty much sure that they are quite slow, but that slow is a bit cruel. Even if you subtract a few tenth due to Alonso’s KERS problems, the lap time in comparisson to for example Grosjeans’ Lotus is horrible. Apparently, the only positive thing is that Alonso’s pure talent becomes obvious. It is evident that he is more than just a formidable driver, who managed to win two championships, but he is one of Formula 1’s legends. It is a shame that Ferrari isn’t able to give him a car that he deserves. Actually in the end, it seems like I am becoming a fan of Alonso this season. 😀

  10. jeanrien says:

    “It’s a race between McLaren, Mercedes and Red Bull”

    I feel like we often forget about Lotus. Australia wasn’t a great race for them (but still showing potential through Kimi’s car) as Mercedes at the end scoring no point … At this point I believe Lotus can challenge Mercedes and maybe even RedBull because they didn’t seem to have any particular problem, Mclaren seems a bit out at the front but not by much. Interesting to see how those 4 teams will perform.

    This all mixed toghether, that makes a lot of contender for a top 5. And without external help, I don’t see Alonso entering it. But I’m sure we will have a great battle Alonso – Raikkonen to entertain the beginning of the race (except if the ferrarai is really that slow and Kimi just pass by but I hope ot for the show).

    For Williams, I’m affraid they will have to make Senna and Maldonado run because they brought money and sponsors and thus need visibility, so they will have to think twice before modifying the line up.

  11. mozart06 says:

    If MSC will perform in the races like 2011 with his 2011 bullshit car then he must win this year.

    Imagine his performances in Montreal and Spa in 2011. With a car nearly competitive like his 2012 car he would easily win both.

  12. Tasi says:

    The first 3 laps will be so much fun! though I suspect we’ll see Vettel climb up only after a few laps eat away softer tyres ahead of him, and barring rain, the top 6 – 8 will be trading places often.
    Hope MAL does not begin by crashing out/ ramming contenders in what could ruin a really interesting midfield start.

    Wonder how big a difference the supposedly more efficient Renault engines will make in a 3-pitstop race. Will teams use it for weight advantage?

    can’t wait! Here’s hoping for few yellow flags…

  13. rayburn says:

    What would Alonso do with a Williams this season? Just fanciful thinking, but I can’t help but wonder what results a top driver would get with that car.

    Great analysis btw, and thanks.

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