Brought to you by TheJudge13 ‘on track correspondent’: James Parker
Heat, humidity and tyre degradation are the three things that look set to dominate tomorrow’s proceedings for the Malaysia Grand Prix. In what was a hugely intriguing Qualifying session today, which saw RedBull struggle, the unpredictable nature of the famous Malaysian weather once again struck to cause some fast and frantic action in Q3 as a sudden downpour turned the track into an ice-rink.
So without further ado, shall we get cracking?
Up to Qualifying on Saturday, it was generally expected that the shootout for pole position would be a RedBull vs Lotus affair – with both teams dominating all 3 practice sessions.
Under relatively humid (67%) conditions Q1 got underway and immediately teams started going different ways with tyres. With the hard compound tyre considered the optimum race tyre for Sunday’s Grand Prix, RedBull, Lotus and Force India driver – Adrian Sutil decided to bolt on the medium compound for the first session.
Both McLaren’s looked to look a lot more at home at Sepang, with Perez and Button easily solidifying their position in the top 10. Whilst Adrian Sutil, the standout performer from the previous Grand Prix for many, continued his rejuvenated form by topping the Q1 timesheet, a track Force India have always looked strong at.
Williams woes, if they needed any more clarification, were confirmed with Bottas missing the cut and being dropped out at the first hurdle, joining him were Vergne who struggled for pace and the two “new” teams followed with Jules Bianchi leading the way, a second clear of Pic, Chilton and the Caterham of Giedo Van Der Garde.
The big surprise however was the clear lack of pace from the RedBull car. Both Vettel and Webber only just scraped through with seconds to spare in Q1 as the RB9 looked ungainly and a bit of handful with the German only managing 14th, whilst Webber could achieve a more respectable 9th place.
Qualifying 2 was to be more of an interesting affair, with the storm clouds starting to gather over the Sepang circuit.
The first exchanges looked rather worrying for Lotus, as Grosjean on his first run could only manage 11th place, the Frenchman suffering yet again to find a good balance over the course of a lap. However his team-mate Raikkonen was far more content and sat 4th.
Up front the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg was sitting pretty, the W04 looking rather ominous in the dry conditions, whilst Mark Webber had recovered to sit 2nd in the middle of a Mercedes sandwich due to Hamilton sitting 3rd.
Adrian Sutil continued his strong form in 5th, with the Ferrari’s of Massa and Alonso hot on the German’s heels. McLaren seemed satisfied with both cars in the top 10, and once again Sebastian Vettel didn’t seem a happy chappy as he could only muster 9th on a scrubbed set of the medium tyre – the rain potentially the German’s saviour.
With 10 minutes gone however, the heavens opened around turn 6 and 7 as a heavy shower decided to spice up a hugely intriguing session. Disaster struck Paul Di Resta, trying to save tyres in doing 1 run late on, he could not set a competitive time before the rain hit, leaving him skating around the circuit on slicks, eventually spinning at turn 7 as he ran wide on to the slippery kerbs.
Maldonado also got caught out (who didn’t set a time and sat 16th), as did Grosjean, unable to improve before conditions deteriorated. Joining the above 3 were both Saubers of Hulkenberg and Guttierez who sit 12th and 14th, sandwiching the Torro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo.
Conditions for the start of Q3 were extremely difficult, as some parts of the circuit were relatively dry, whilst the back end of the circuit was still feeling the full force of the shower. Intermediates were the only choice for drivers, and it would see the last driver to cross the line, given the best chance of claiming pole as the rain subsided.
Trying to manage the wear rates and heat of the intermediates over the course of the lap were to be crucial to set a competitive time, as drivers didn’t look to take too much out of the tyre in the drier parts of the circuit. After the first set of runs, Hamilton showed his skill in the mixed conditions by topping the timesheet for provisional pole however the joy was short lived thanks to some clever strategy by both Vettel and the Ferraris.
Seeing a potential advantage on fresh intermediates, due to the compounds wearing abnormally fast thanks to the drying track, Vettel and the Ferraris of Massa and Alonso pitted for a fresh set of boots. With a minute to go Hamilton was looking pretty ahead of Webber in 2nd, however the fresh rubber paid off and Vettel drove the “perfect lap“, with a 1min 49.674 to capture his 38th pole position in Formula 1.
It was an incredible performance given the clear lack of pace from the German in both Q1 and Q2 earlier.
Felipe Massa continued his magnificent form by out-qualifying Alonso for the second Grand Prix in a row (and fourth time in succession; Austin and Brazil) to claim his first front row in F1 for over 2 years. Alonso was 3rd, with Hamilton 4th, Webber down in 5th and Rosberg rounding out a frustrating final session for Mercedes.
The most frustrated man on the grid however had to be Raikkonen. Staying out on used Intermediates, the Finn could only manage 7th place, with a Lotus car that really did not possess the same kind of pace as in the dry conditions during the earlier part of the weekend. His problems were further compounded with a 3 place grid penalty post session, with the official statement from the FIA declaring that he had impeded Mercedes driver, Rosberg during Q3 demoting him to 10th.
It means the two McLaren’s of Button and Perez start 7th and 9th, which highlight a generally more positive session for the guys from Woking. Adrian Sutil, like Raikkonen, really could not reproduce his strong dry form in the mixed conditions and could only manage 8th.
It sets up an incredibly interesting Grand Prix, a race in which you would predict rain at some point during the afternoon, creating a potential lottery for anyone in the top 10. Ferrari look to have a stronger race car than qualifying car, and the fast starts they are able to produce will worry Vettel I am sure.
Whether Mercedes have built on their race pace woes from Melbourne has yet to be seen, but they could be outside bets on a podium if rain does hit during the Grand Prix – Rosberg especially, will be doing the rain dance this evening I am sure.
Adrian Sutil looks strong however the big question mark must be over Lotus. Raikkonen is effectively out of position, as is Grosjean, and it will be interesting to see what kind of progress they can make from 10th and 11th respectively – do they possess the same wear rate advantage at Sepang?
What are you most looking forward to tomorrow?