Brought to you by TheJudge13 contributor James Parker
Mark Webber topped off a fine qualifying performance at Suzuka to claim his 13th career pole position, beating his team-mate Sebastian Vettel by 0.174 of a second, who himself was suffering from a KERS boost problem during the final part of qualifying. Third place was the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton who had looked strong all weekend but could simply not touch the raw pace of the RB9 in the end.
For Q1 the conditions had changed quite dramatically with a tail wind now present on the back and start finish straights, and a nice head wind aiding drivers through the fast sweeping sector 1.
The Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez was the first car on track as he looked to make early headway around Suzuka. Opening up the time sheets with a lap time of 1.33.547, the marker was laid down for those to chase. Others to join him out on track early included the optimistic Raikkonen, the McLaren of Button as well as the Force India of Paul Di Resta.
Typical of Red Bull in recent races, both drivers waited for over half of the session to elapse before taking to the track – such was their confidence. Another driver with bags of confidence was Hamilton, who was showing his strong free practice pace at the start of the session. Displacing the unsettled Alonso at the head of the time sheets, the Mercedes man looked confident before being knocked off by the Red Bulls.
There were two slight dramas during Q1 worth noting. After his first run early on in the session, Gutierrez arrived back into the pits when a small fire erupted on his car at the time. Thankfully he managed to escape unharmed, and the fire was extinguished.
The second incident was far more spectacular. With 3 minutes remaining, the Torro Rosso of Jean Eric Vergne suddenly erupted with both rear brakes ablaze. The session was briefly red flagged as marshals looked to deal with the smoking Torro Rosso whilst cars lined up in the pitlane to fit in 1 final run before Q1 finished. The top 5 felt safe enough and opted not to run.
As the checkered flag dropped, the bottom 6 consisted of a struggling Sutil (having had a FP3 crash). He was joined by the retired Vergne, but worth a mention was an impressive Chilton who finished ahead of not only his team-mate but Pic and van der Garde too.
For Q2 Paul Di Resta was the first driver on track. The Force India man was clearly eager to make an impression after a troublesome Singapore and Korean Grand Prix’s and set an early time of 1.33.059 on the medium compound.
The two Lotus cars of Grosjean and Raikkonen again opted to run the harder prime compound for the start of Q2, displacing Di Resta at the top of the time sheets. This was short lived however as Hamilton once again asserted his speed at the top, swapping fastest times with the Ferrari of Alonso who appeared to be eager to put behind him an inconsistent weekend so far which included a spin in FP2.
As was the case in Q1, both Red Bull men waited long into the session before setting benchmark times. With only 4 minutes remaining, Vettel and Webber both took to the track. Immediately Vettel went fastest, 5 tenths clear of the rest of the field, with his team-mate following closely 2 tenths back. It was a positive sign that the German was set to take his 5th consecutive pole at Suzuka, even after a FP3 KERS problem which disrupted his running.
Grosjean was continuing his strong form in qualifying by putting his Lotus 3rd with 1 minute remaining and on the prime tyre too – once again looking more comfortable with his E21 than team-mate Raikkonen. Elsewhere, there was a frantic rush towards the checkered flag, as Massa, Rosberg, Alonso, Button and Hulkenberg all dragged themselves out of the drop zone at the expense of Perez in 11th.
Following the Mexican who missed the cut by under a tenth of a second was an optimistic Di Resta, a solid Bottas, Gutierrez, Maldonado and Ricciardo.
For Q3 there was a slight surprise as Sebastian Vettel took to the track first. This part of the session was plagued by a KERS problem for the German however which meant he was almost 0.3 seconds down on his outright pace. Told to push the brake balance 3 clicks rearwards and make the most of the situation, a messy first lap (which saw him run slightly wide at Spoon) was enough to achieve a 1.31.312 on the medium compound tyre.
Smelling blood, his team-mate Mark Webber was looking to seize the opportunity to grasp pole position and out qualify Vettel for the first time this season. Setting a benchmark of 1.31.9 he went onto provisional pole, as Alonso and Hamilton went 3rd and 4th a long way back. These were the only 4 drivers to make 2 runs in Q3.
There was moment of silence on track as the top 10 all looked to make at least 1 run before the checkered flag dropped.
Raikkonen was first to join the track, however his lap looked conservative and he could only manage 3rd 7 tenths down on Webber at the head of the field. He was quickly shoved down firstly by Alonso, but then Rosberg, Hulkenberg, Massa, Grosjean and finally Hamilton.
A great effort by Massa saw him grab 5th position, 3 places up from a very unhappy Spaniard in his team-mate Alonso. Grosjean once again comprehensively out-qualified Raikkonen gaining 4th place whilst his team-mate languished down in 9th and Hamilton left it late, but pulled out a solid lap to claim 3rd.
But it was all about Webber. Grabbing the opportunity with both hands to beat Vettel to pole position for the first time this season, he can now climb down off the ladder as the only man not to have out-qualified his team-mate so far this year. Even though Webber admitted the “victory” was a tad hollow due to the KERS problems experienced by Vettel – it must feel good nonetheless.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery said: “It’s been an action-packed day at Suzuka, which is a sign of just how challenging this circuit is. There has been quite a high degree of track evolution over the weekend so far and we’d expect to see two pit stops in the normal course of events tomorrow.
There’s a much smaller lap time difference between the two nominated compounds than we’ve had in the previous two races, which clearly had an effect on the strategy as it made it easier for the frontrunners to get through Q1 using the hard compounds, as we saw with Grosjean’s impressive run through Q1. This opens up different strategic possibilities for the race tomorrow, with a number of options potentially paying off.
The times are actually very close, so there’s an opportunity for strategy to really make a difference. Although this is a very demanding track for tyres, with the highest lateral energy loads of the year, wear and degradation is where we expect it to be: we saw in qualifying that times didn’t drop off significantly even with used tyres.”
The Pirelli mystery strategy predictor
Two stops are theoretically the quickest way to complete the 53-lap Japanese Grand Prix. The fastest strategy
should be to start on the medium, change to medium again on lap 20 and then change to the hard on lap 37.
An alternative could be: start on the medium, switch to hard on lap 20, and hard tyre again on lap 37.
|1||M Webber||Red Bull|
|2||S Vettel||Red Bull|
|12||P Di Resta||Force India|
|16||D Ricciardo||Toro Rosso|
|17||A Sutil||Force India|
|18||J Vergne||Toro Rosso|
|21||G van der Garde||Caterham|