Brought to you by TheJudge13 ‘on track correspondent’: James Parker
A Tale of Tyres…..
Well, well well, back after a 3 week hiatus and plenty of off-track controversy to keep the fans happy. A competitive qualifying session was exactly what the doctor ordered to get the emphasis back on the racing – Did we get it?
Not entirely but it was a fascinating qualifying session for a number of reasons. Tyres look once again to be the talk of the town as the soft compound tyre appears to be more fragile than a sheet of glass.
The Shanghai International Circuit, a track dominated by Mercedes engine cars (4 wins out of the last 5 races) was bathed in the hottest temperatures of the weekend for Qualifying 1. With an ambient temperature nudging just under 28 degrees, and a track temperature of 40+, it appeared to be the perfect conditions for the first “real” dry Qualifying session of this season.
Rumours were spreading around the paddock that Heikki Kovalainen maybe making a cameo appearance at Caterham in Bahrain. Plans are for him to run in all three practice sessions in order to test and optimise new development parts that have been pushed ahead of schedule. Opinions may be split on whether this is the right decision for the Caterham team but it is a major kick in the teeth for both Van Der Garde and Pic. But let’s get down to the juicy part…..
The session was very much a slow burner, 9 minutes passed after the green light before the first cars decided to take to the circuit. A number of teams opted to run once on the medium or softer compound in order to save tyres for the race with Nico Rosberg setting the early pace with a 1.35.9 on the soft compound tyre. Hamilton claimed a close second behind his team-mate with the Mercedes duo dominating the running – the W04 FRIC hydraulic suspension seems to be working nicely now.
The Mercedes pair were followed closely by both Webber and Massa. Lotus appeared to be struggling with balance issues as Kimi Raikkonen finished 1.2 seconds down in 12th, with Force India also finding it hard to make the softer compound tyres switch on. McLaren’s upgrades have not had the profound effect they hoped for with both Perez and Button finishing some 0.9 seconds off the ultimate pace, time to start scratching some heads?
The usual suspects dropped out of Q1, but one special mention has to go to Bianchi once again who finished 0.7 seconds clear of both Caterham’s and his team-mate. Will he be eyeing up a Ferrari drive for 2014?
To make the bottom 7, a struggling Gutierrez and Bottas joined the Marussias and Caterhams with the two rookies seemingly struggling to get to grips with their cars (no pun intended) – are Williams problems more than skin deep with the FW35?
For the start of Qualifying 2, Championship leader, Vettel was straight out with the aim of 1 timed run, posting up a respectable 1.36.2 – it narrowly being beaten by a racy Alonso in the Ferrari. But it was his team-mate Webber, who was to suffer such horrendous luck with 7 minutes left of the session.
Pulling up onto the support road on the inside of the hairpin, his RB9 had ran out of fuel due to a glitch with one of the fuel Bowsers back in the pitlane – 3kg down on fuel his car ground to a halt and he eventually finished 14th and out of qualifying.
Amongst the confusion caused by Webber pulling off, the Mercedes duo once again took charge at the head of qualifying with Rosberg once again leading Hamilton by 4 tenths of a second setting a laptime of 1.35.0 on the softer compound tyre. Raikkonen found some pace in his Lotus E21 to move up to 3rd, whilst his team-mate Grojsean was sitting pretty in 8th opting to just do 1 timed run through the entire session – 3 tenths above the drop zone.
As the chequered flag drew closer, cars were coming out thick and fast to do their second runs. Hamilton had a second bite of the cherry and leapfrogged Rosberg at the head of the time sheets. Alonso, Vettel and Massa also bettered the German’s time to claim 2nd, 3rd and 4th. Raikkonen held station behind Rosberg in 6th, ahead of a resurgent Jenson Button in 7th and his Grosjean in 8th.
But the star man of Q2 was Daniel Ricciardo. Pulling out a stunning lap for 9th, getting into Q3 for the first time since Bahrain 2012 and sneaking ahead of the Sauber of Hulkenberg in 10th.
The unlucky ones to go out were the struggling Force India duo of Sutil and Di Resta who finished 11th and 13th, sandwiching the McLaren of Perez in 12th who missed the cut by just a tenth of a second. 14th was the hugely unlucky Webber, followed by the Williams of Maldonado and Jean Eric Vergne who finished 9 tenths off his team-mate in 16th.
The last qualifying session was dominated by 1 aspect above all others and that was tyres. Vettel came out extremely early on a set of scrubbed soft tyres in order to cover anyone who potentially would not go out at all in Q3, cruising back into the pits after an out lap.
With the degradation so severe on the softer compound tyre, it looked set to be a battle of wits, as teams waited for some 7 minutes before setting cars off on competitive runs. Vettel and Button came out on the medium compound tyre, not to the surprise of many up and down the paddock, and they will be in a good position to make ground in the first stint of the race when others will have to pit due to the fragile softs.
Kimi Raikkonen set the early pace, with his Lotus managing a time of 1.34.7 – a fantastic effort all round. This was until the Mercedes of Hamilton eclipsed it with a near perfect lap of 1.34.4. The Brit had looked strong all session and the W04 was driving beautifully with a Hamilton trademark stiff set-up.
Alonso saved his blushes of getting out qualified for the first time of his career 5 times in a row. He finished 3rd, ahead of the Mercedes of Rosberg who made a small mistake exiting the last corner costing him a front row grid slot.
Massa was a solid 5th ahead of the Lotus of Grosjean who looked unspectacular and rather distant. 7th was the Torro Rosso of Ricciardo, benefitting from Vettel and Button’s strategy of not setting a competitive time with the medium compounds bolted on, with Hulkenberg set to try and make a similar strategy pay off from 10th.
It appears a 3 stop race is the best route to take in the Grand Prix tomorrow, with the soft compound tyre getting thrown away early on in exchange for the more durable (just) Medium tyre. However it will be fascinating to see how strong Vettel and Button become in the first stint of the race; how long can they make the medium compound tyres last?
The first stint will be the most crucial in my opinion as it will be also fascinating to see if Hulkenberg disrupts the leading 3-4 drivers after they have made their first pit stop.
For the soft runners, you would have to expect a stint no longer than 5-6 laps before the tyres turns to jelly, but it will be interesting to see how long Kimi can make them last on the E21. We know how well the car reacts to tyre conservation whilst still producing competitive lap times.
Webber will be the one to watch though. Post qualifying it was announced that he would start from 22nd on the grid for tomorrow. This was down to the RB9 not having enough fuel in the tank to produce a fuel sample and therefore had broken the regulations.
After his 2011 comeback to 3rd from 18th on the grid, solid points could be possible. However with the RedBull 11km/h slower on the back straight than some of its rivals, two DRS zones may still not be enough to aid Webber in making his way through the pack.
Feel free to post your race predictions below, is it Hamilton’s to lose, or will the medium compound runners be an extreme thorn in the side of all the softer runners ahead of them? Additionally, is qualifying getting affected too much by tyre issues?