Brought to you by TheJudge13 ‘on track correspondent’: James Parker
Under the warm Spanish sun of Catalunya, we were treated to an incredibly close qualifying session. The Silver Arrows proved their pace over 1 lap by locking out the front row. The last time the team managed this was in its former guise as Brawn GP. Nico Rosberg claimed a superb pole, his 2nd in a row, ahead of his team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Rosberg’s pole time of 1m20.718s on the medium compound was more than a second a half quicker than the 2012 pole position set by Williams driver Pastor Maldonado (1m22.285s) on last year’s soft, despite the fact that usage of the DRS was unlimited last season. Historically a strong qualifying performance is vital in Barcelona, as has the race been won from other than the front row of the grid only once.
The two main protagonists at the top of the championship fight lie 3rd and 4th for tomorrow’s Grand Prix. Vettel edged out Raikkonen by one tenth of a second, whilst home favourite Alonso could only muster 5th, after an unspectacular session.
Q1 was very slow to get going, with four minutes passing before we saw any cars on circuit. Track temperature was 36°C, but it was the 3.4 m/s headwind that was set to cause a few drivers problems through the fast turns three and nine.
The Lotus cars set the early pace, with Raikkonen on top, posting a lap of 1.23.087, which was after the two Torro Rossos, Maldonado, and Hulkenberg had effectively been “track cleaners” during the opening minutes. Alonso quickly made his intent known to the rest of the pack by toppling Raikkonen from the top of the field with a 1.22.264, much to delight of his home supporters.
There were a number of interesting developments, however: both McLarens, both Mercedes cars, and Vettel went straight on to the medium compound, to save the harder, more durable compound for the Grand Prix. Rosberg, on softer rubber, immediately went top, but was quickly eclipsed by his team-mate Hamilton, who posted a 1.21.7 to go 2 tenths clear.
Elsewhere, there was trouble in the final chicane, as the Sauber of Guttierez appeared to block Raikkonen, who was on his final hot lap of the session. Not seeing the Finn in his mirrors, Guttierez took his normal line through the chicane, much to the frustration of Raikkonen, who lost a bundle of time, but still managed 4th.
Down at the bottom, it were the usual suspects. Gio Van Der Garde however had a fantastic session, which ended in him qualifying ahead of not only his team-mate Pic, but also both Marussias, all this with a Caterham that does not boast all the new goodies of Pic. Joining them in the bottom 6 was a rather deflated Williams team, with both Maldonado and Bottas not making the cut.
After what during FP2 and FP3 looked like they were making progress, both drivers appeared to be struggling hugely with the car’s balance, and it summed up a pretty torrid afternoon for them.
Two and a half minutes passed before we saw any cars on track for Q2. The session was dominated by a late resurgence from Lewis Hamilton, who produced, after sitting 13th and in the drop zone with seconds to spare, a stunning lap to top the field by six tenths of a second, with a 1.21 flat. It was the first sign of Mercedes’ raw pace over one lap, after having worked hard on longer runs, in FP3.
For the majority of the session, Vettel, Alonso, and Raikkonen squabbled at the front, each posting a lap within one tenth of each other’s time. McLaren however was really struggling. Having made earlier runs on scrubbed medium tyres, both Button and Perez went out with fresh rubber for their final attempts to try and break into Q3.
Perez produced a stunning lap to go 7th, with a low 1.21. Button however was really struggling to find his rhythm and looked incredibly scruffy. The best he could manage was a 1.23.166 and 14th on the grid. This, I am sure, will be a bitter pill to swallow for Button, after having been beaten by Perez in Bahrain, and the media assault he’s had to face as a result of that and his cries over the radio.
Joining Button in the drop zone were the two Torro Rossos of Ricciardo and Vergne in 11th and 12th, showing signs that recent upgrades to the car have pushed them in the right direction. Sutil was 13th, whilst the two Saubers of Hulkenberg and Guttierez brought up the rear in 15th and 16th, both of them struggling with rear grip.
For Q3, the wind speed dropped to just 1.8 m/s, allowing more stable conditions through the fast turns 3 and 9, and track temperature dropped to 35°C.
Only five drivers opted to do two runs, the rest opting for only one. The session was, however, about only one man, Nico Rosberg. The German went to the top with his first run, posting a lap of 1.20.8 to go four tenths clear of Alonso, Massa, Grosjean, and Raikkonen, with the Finn making a mistake into T5.
With the rest of the pack out for their only run of the session, the action became fast and frantic. Hamilton went 2nd, with a solid 1.20.9, showing that even if they don’t have a strong race car, the W04 is more than capable over 1 lap. Rosberg added insult to injury by going another tenth clear with a 1.21.7, whilst Vettel and Raikkonen had to settle for 3rd and 4th, posting times one tenth apart, 0.4 seconds behind.
Alonso could only manage 5th, narrowly beating team-mate Massa, who starts 6th. Grosjean, the unspectacular Webber, Perez, and Di Resta rounded out the top ten of what ended up being a complete Mercedes “silver wash”. Incidentally, the two Mercedes cars were the only pair to get into the 1.20’s, which showed Rosberg had almost 3 tenths in his pocket.
The grid is slightly adjusted, due to Massa and Gutierrez getting penalties for blocking during qualifying. The result is that Massa drops from 6th to 9th, and Gutierrez from 16th to 19th.
|10||DI RESTA||FORCE INDIA|
|18||VAN DER GARDE||CATERHAM|
Tyre strategy will be interesting in tomorrow’s race.
Pirelli’s mystery strategy predictor suggests the fastest strategy for the 66-lap race is set to be a three-stopper, as was the case last year. It runs as follows: start on the medium tyre, a fresh set of mediums on lap 16 and on lap 33, and a final stop for hard tyres on lap 50.
Alternatively, there is another effective three-stop strategy. Start on the medium tyre, get fresh mediums on lap 17, then switch to the hard on lap 34 and with a final stint on fresh hard tyres from lap 50.
The new “prototype” harder compound tyre that has been brought to Spain looks to be very durable indeed. The two Mercedes cars, which have a history of being very hard on their tyres, may opt to run on the harder compound rather that following Pirelli’s strategy. However, with track position being everything, and with the two main title contenders directly behind them, turn 1 will be interesting. Raikkonen will not want to see Vettel jump the two Mercedes men.
The Lotus car has been finding almost a second per lap on the medium compound tyre compared to the hard, so it will be interesting to see if they take a gamble later on in the race. Placing Raikkonen on the medium compound for the final stint of the race, on lower fuel, may be an inspired choice. However, it all depends on how the E21 looks after its rubber during the Grand Prix – which typically is “very good”.
Vettel, like Mercedes, will be glad the harder compound tyre is more durable. The RB9 has been destroying its front tyres, and with many long-radius corners putting pressure on the front left, degradation should not be so much of a worry for the three-time WDC.
Alonso and Massa from the 3rd row of the grid may be the dark horses. We know how fast the Ferrari launches off the line, and we know how clinical Alonso is if he sniffs even half of a chance . Remember that the Ferrari and Lotus have both looked incredibly fast and consistent on longer runs.
Finally, it will be interesting to see what progress Perez makes from 9th on the grid. This season, the McLaren has looked much stronger as a race car than as a qualifying car, and although the updates have not had the pronounced effect McLaren had hoped for, good points for the Mexican can be achieved from there. However, what a boost in confidence this will be, compared to Button, who looks to be having a very ragged weekend by his standards – are mind games at play already?
Bring on tomorrow…..