Mercedes have the fastest car in Formula 1 at present. That’s no secret. But just how fast is their car? It’s so fast that both drivers can go off during what should be their fastest laps in qualifying… and they still lock out the front row. That’s exactly what happened yesterday in Austria.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were fastest and second fastest in the final part of qualifying, when they started their final flying laps, each attempting to go quicker. Rosberg was ahead on the track and on a quick lap.
Hamilton put a wheel on the grass under braking for the first corner and spun, ending his chances of improving his lap time. Rosberg was up ahead, unaware that Hamilton had spun and pushing hard to try to take pole position. Going into the last sector of the lap, it looked like Rosberg might have just done enough to beat Hamilton to the top spot. But then Rosberg also went off, running wide on the exit of turn 8 before losing the back end of his Mercedes into turn 9.
Although Rosberg managed to catch his car in time to prevent a spin, he ran out of space and went off into the gravel on the outside of the corner, which put an end to his session.
In motor racing, the track typically (not always but usually) gets faster the longer a session goes on. That’s because the cars lay rubber down on the track on every lap they do. More rubber on the track means more grip, which means quicker lap times. That’s why the fastest lap in a qualifying session is almost always done right at the end, and the teams and drivers time their final lap to start at the last possible second to take advantage of the track being at its quickest.
Yesterday in Austria, Mercedes didn’t need their final laps. That’s how quick those cars are. Even without setting a lap time when the track was in optimal condition, they were still faster than everyone else. Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was over a third of a second off Hamilton’s pace in third place, with no answer to the speed of the mighty Mercedes.
Can anyone beat the Mercedes drivers in the race? We’ll find out this afternoon, but I’ll be surprised if that’s the case.
Pastor Maldonado has been handed a ten-place grid penalty for today’s Brazilian Grand Prix after receiving his third reprimand of the season from the stewards. The reprimand was issued after Maldonado missed a call to the weigh bridge as he entered the pits during yesterday’s qualifying session.
The weigh bridge is there to ensure legality of the cars during the competitive sessions. An underweight car would be a huge advantage, particularly in qualifying where the cars are already running as light as possible. The officials conduct random checks on cars during Q1 and Q2, and all cars taking part in Q3 are weighed after the end of the session. The procedure for calling a driver to the weigh bridge during a session involves a red light at the pit lane entrance and an official indicating which way the car should go. If the driver does not see the light or official – bear in mind that the driver is approaching the pitlane at considerable speed, not always in a straight line, and sometimes (as in Brazil) while cresting a hill – he will receive a reprimand. Three reprimands during the season earn the driver a ten-place grid penalty.
The problem with calling a driver to the weigh bridge during qualifying is that it costs time, which puts that driver at a disadvantage compared to his competitors. In the case of Maldonado, he was 13th in the session with only seven minutes remaining in Q2. He would have been acutely aware of the need to get back to his pit garage, put some new tyres on, let the team make any changes or add fuel if necessary, and get on with the business of delivering a quick lap. A delay at the weigh bridge would have cost him valuable time, particularly if the team needed to make any minor changes to the car.
While the weigh bridge serves an important purpose, the way it is currently used results in random drivers being disadvantaged in the name of scrutineering. There is also an obvious communication problem, which clearly needs to be resolved. A simple call to the team to inform their driver over the radio that he must report to the weigh bridge seems quite logical and could completely avoid the need for petty penalties.
Nonetheless, the rules are clear, even if the mode of communication is not. Maldonado missed the weigh bridge, earning him a third reprimand, and resulting therefore in a ten-place grid-penalty. He will now start the race 16th, after qualifying an impressive sixth.
Red Bull may have dominated the last four races, but in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, they had no answer to the raw pace of Lewis Hamilton, as he took pole position by a third of a second from Mark Webber. Sebastian Vettel was third, but that was all about to change as he stopped his car on track at the end of qualifying which led to an investigation by the stewards.
Hamilton’s pole position was not entirely unexpected. The McLaren has looked quick on the Yas Marina track all weekend, particularly so in the hands of Lewis Hamilton. He topped the first and third practice sessions, and was second to Vettel in the second Friday session. On his pole lap, Hamilton even had a couple of small oversteer moments, which would have cost him time. In other words, he could have gone even faster.
Hamilton’s weekend may be going well, but for Sebastian Vettel everything seems to be going wrong. The reigning World Champion was stuck in the Red Bull garage for most of FP3 with a brake problem, which seriously curtailed his qualifying preparation. In qualifying, Vettel could only manage the third fastest time, behind his own team-mate Mark Webber and pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton.
But when Vettel’s car came to a halt on track at the end of Q3, his third place was immediately in jeopardy. The regulations are clear. A fuel sample must be available from each car at the end of qualifying, and each car must return to the pits under its own power unless the team can prove a case of force majeure to the stewards.
It was Renault, Red Bull’s engine supplier, who had requested that Vettel stop on track. The stewards accepted that there was a genuine case of force majeure and did not penalise him for stopping. However, it turned out that there was insufficient fuel left in Vettel’s car to provide the required fuel sample, and Vettel was accordingly excluded from the results of qualifying, in accordance with the regulations. He is therefore demoted to the back of the grid, and Red Bull have confirmed that they will elect to start Vettel from the pit lane, which allows the team to make setup changes to the car.
Vettel’s woes play straight into the hands of Fernando Alonso. Red Bull look comfortably quicker than Ferrari at this stage of the season and that makes a straight fight between Vettel and Alonso fairly predictable. Alonso therefore needs some Red Bull misfortune, and that is precisely what has occurred this weekend. Alonso has a 13 point deficit to overturn if he is to win the title, and he is perfectly placed to do just that in this weekend’s race.
For Formula One fans, both at the track and at home, Vettel’s penalty provides the promise of a thrilling race. Vettel has a quick car, he is the current double World Champion, and he has the motivation to fight for a good result. All of that means that viewers will likely be treated to a unique and inspiring drive from the Red Bull driver tomorrow. No driver in history has won from 24th on the grid. Could Vettel be the first?
Fernando Alonso has taken pole position for tomorrow’s German Grand Prix, in a brilliant display of wet weather driving.
Although there had been rain earlier in the day, the racing line in Q1 was completely dry, and the teams streamed out onto the track, fearing that the weather might affect the latter part of the session. The rain held off, which was fortunate for Michael Schumacher who only just squeaked in to Q2 with a last lap effort to put him 17th.
The rain came down just before Q2 started, which made the conditions difficult to read. All of the drivers who had made it into the session went out on intermediate tyres, but as the rain continued to fall the full wets became necessary, and the times soon stopped coming down. Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean were caught out by the weather, and did not manage to post quick enough times to make it through to Q3.
Q3 was very wet, so much so that Nico Hulkenberg aquaplaned into a spin in the high-speed turn five, and Michael Schumacher complained over the radio that the track was too wet to drive. Nonetheless, the drivers kept at it, and as the cars began to disperse the water the times started to tumble. Ferrari made a good strategic call to bring Alonso in for a fresh set of full wets, and he rocketed to the top of the time-sheets with only a few minutes to go. Right at the end, Alonso improved on his own pole time, which proved unnecessary as no-one else could challenge him.
The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber qualified second and third respectively, followed by Schumacher, who had a strong Q3 despite almost not progressing from Q1. Hulkenberg and Maldonado were fifth and sixth, followed by the McLaren pair of Button and Hamilton who seemed to struggle in the wet conditions. Paul di Resta came in ninth to complete a good session for Force India, and Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top ten.
Alonso’s second pole in as many races highlights his form, particularly in the wet, where he has been untouchable so far this season. The weather is expected to be dry for tomorrow’s race, which shouldn’t bother Alonso too much as the Ferrari F2012 seems to be quick in all conditions.
Fernando Alonso has been the stand-out driver of 2012, as the only driver to have won two races thus far. But before yesterday, the Spaniard had not yet secured a pole position this season. That changed in a drenched Silverstone qualifying session.
The rain came down just before the start of Q1, as a result of which drivers queued to get out on track as quickly as possible – fearing that the rain would intensify and the track become slower. As usual, both Caterhams, both Marussias and both HRTs were eliminated in the first session. The big name to fall out in Q1 was Jenson Button, who was on a quick lap towards the end of the session but was the victim of yellow flags in the final sector when a Marussia spun on the start-finish straight.
As if the weekend hadn’t been wet enough already, the rain pelted down in Q2, to the point that several drivers found themselves passengers in aquaplaning cars. With just over six minutes remaining, race control decided that conditions were too wet for the session to continue, and put out the red flag. The session was stopped for over an hour before the track was safe for qualifying to resume, at which point the 17 remaining drivers streamed out to set times in the few remaining minutes of the session. Eliminated in Q2 were di Resta, Kobayashi, Rosberg, Ricciardo, Senna, Vergne and Perez.
Q3 saw laptimes dropping constantly as the track dried out. After pole changed hands almost every lap, Alonso emerged on top ahead of Mark Webber and Michael Schumacher. Vettel, Massa, Raikkonen, Maldonado, Hamilton, Hulkenberg and Grosjean rounded out the top ten. Grosjean had failed to set a time in Q3 after spinning into the gravel right at the end of Q2.
Kobayashi drops 5 places and Vergne 10 after causing collisions at the previous race in Valencia. Hulkenberg and Pic have gearbox penalties and therefore drop 5 places each. In Pic’s case that makes no difference to his grid position, after he did not qualify within 107% of the fastest time in Q1. The stewards have nonetheless allowed Pic to race, and he will start 24th and last.
The provisional grid after penalties is as follows:
|2||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull|
|4||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull|
|10||11||Paul di Resta||Force India|
|12||16||Daniel Ricciardo||Toro Rosso|
|14||12||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India|
|21||22||Pedro de la Rosa||HRT|
|23||17||Jean-Eric Vergne||Toro Rosso|
2012 has seen some of the tightest results in history. The cars and drivers are so evenly matched, it has become very difficult to predict who will be competitive. Qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix this afternoon could see just about anyone on pole.
As expected, McLaren, Red Bull and Mercedes have been quick all weekend. Lotus were a little off the pace on Friday, but have shown their pace in third practice earlier today. The surprise package of the weekend, however, is Ferrari. After a difficult start to the season, the team from Maranello has improved massively through the last few races, and today Fernando Alonso was just 0.006s off the pace in second. Massa made a mistake on his quickest lap, which means his sixth place is not representative of what he can do in qualifying.
The top 15 cars were separated by just 0.885 seconds in third practice. And that did not include the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, who stopped on track on his installation lap with a clutch problem.
So a qualifying prediction is difficult. It could be Hamilton, Alonso, Vettel, Webber, Schumacher, Maldonado or any one of another 10 drivers. It is likely that there will be at least one or two big names who fail to make it into Q3, and it is probable that almost everyone will have to use the supersoft tyres in Q2, perhaps even Q1.
Follow @chrisonf1 for live Twitter commentary during today’s qualifying session.
Formula One heads to Montreal next week for the Canadian Grand Prix. The city is a favourite for teams and drivers. As Caterham driver Heikki Kovalainen says, “The Canadian people are brilliant and there’s a special atmosphere all over Montreal, which we only get at a few races we go to so it’s one of the weekends everyone’s up for.”
The track is characterised by long straights and slow corners, which means high top speed, good traction and low speed grip are crucial. Vitaly Petrov describes the ideal car setup: “There a few things to get right for a really quick lap – you need to manage the brake wear and cooling enough to be able to get on the brakes hard every time you need them, you have to have very good traction out of the slower corners and you need to be able to really hit the kerbs hard to save the tenths of a second that add to up to a good time.”
With that in mind, Mercedes should be in strong contention for pole position. Rosberg and Schumacher have each topped the times in qualifying once this season, showing that the car is quick. The Mercedes engine is the most powerful on the grid, which provides high top speed on the long straights in Montreal. The unique DRS system on the W03 will even further increase acceleration and straight-line speed during qualifying. Stability in low-speed corners was evident in Monaco, where Schumacher was quickest in qualifying, and Rosberg finished second in the race. The Mercedes showed good traction out of the final chicane at the Spanish Grand Prix, and also demonstrated an ability to ride the kerbs well.
The weakness of the Mercedes is a slight lack of downforce in high-speed corners. In Canada, there aren’t any high-speed corners. All of the circuit characteristics suit the Silver Arrows.
Schumacher’s best result since returing to Formula One came at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix, where he finished fourth after running as high as second in changing weather conditions. The German multiple world champion will be hoping to go at least one better than that this year, to achieve the first podium of his second career. But before that, he and his team-mate Nico Rosberg will be aiming for pole position. They have the car to do it.
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