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… 🙂