Mar.24 (PVM) Lewis Hamilton led home a McLaren 1-2 in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix, notching up his second pole on the trot this season and his first top slot start in Sepang, with his teammate Jenson Button lining up beside him on the front row and seven times world champion Michael Schumacher lining up his Mercedes third on the grid.
As in Australia, Hamilton did the business in one awesome lap early on in Q3 – clipping every apex and delivering a lap of near perfection around the tricky Hermann Tilke designed venue. It was the 2008 F1 world champion’s and McLaren’s first at the circuit.
No big celebrations, or air punching, from Hamilton as he rolled to a halt in parc ferme. Rather, a huge smile as he removed his bright yellow helmet, said it all; mission accomplished. An important pole in the context of his duel for supremacy within McLaren.
Hamilton said afterwards, “It’s been a good weekend so far. It’s been a tough day with the changeable weather and the temperatures climbing. We made some set up changes to the car, we still managed to do some good times – even with these guys pushing behind. Everyone is under the same amount of pressure. We all put pressure on ourselves. It’s very intense and the most exciting part of the weekend. I really enjoy it. I don’t know if the best place to start is here. It’s a long haul down to Turn One. The key is looking after our tyres and hopefully our car is in a much better position for the race tomorrow.”
Once again Button nabbed second on the grid, as he did in Australia, and a McLaren 1-2 in the grand prix is theirs to lose – the Woking squad taking on the role that Red Bull enjoyed last year of having a dominant car in their possession, at least for now. With Melbourne as inspiration, Button will fancy his chances of nabbing maximum points again on race day.
“Qualifying has been pretty good to me in the last two races so I can’t complain too much. It’s good for us as a team to be on the front row again. It’s nice to hear all your mechanics cheering in the background. I wanted it the other way round, but Lewis did a great job. It’s going to be a fun Turn 1,” said Button who won the 2009 Malaysian GP.
Claiming his best grid spot since his return to F1 at the beginning of 2010 was Schumacher in the Mercedes AMG W03, the seven times world champion and three times winner at Sepang showed a good turn of speed behind the wheel of a car that is clearly to his liking. he ended the session a quarter of a second up on his team mate Nico Rosberg, who was 8th quickest.
Schumacher said, “This was the maximum that was available. We managed to work the car very well over the whole weekend. The focus was to try and find the best compromise for both [the qualifying and the race] and I guessed we have achieved this. Third here is a very tight business so we can be more than happy and I look forward to tomorrow. I guess all of us have certain concerns because those temperatures are pretty new to us. We have learned quite a lesson in Australia and we have reacted. I’m more than happy with the progress and how we understand the car.”
Schumacher last qualified in the top three for a grand prix when he took second place on the grid for the 2006 Japanese GP as a Ferrari driver!
Sharing the second row with Schumacher is the Red Bull RB8 of Mark Webber whose time of 1 minute 36.461 seconds in Q3 was identical to Kimi Raikkonen’s best in the Lotus E20. The Finn, who will drop five grid places, down to tenth, due to a gearbox change, has not taken long to re-adapt to the latest F1 cars. His team mate Romain Grosjean also impressing, today with the eighth best time.
Fourth fastest Webber said, “It’s fantastically challenging and I’m looking forward to seeing how the race pans out. We need to look at our straight-line performance. We know that the Mercedes are strong in a straight line. The car balance and performance was better than in Melbourne and we have a good race car. We know everyone will be struggling with tyres so we just have to be a little bit better.”
Splitting the two black and gold cars, sixth on the timing screens, was world champion Sebastian Vettel who probably realised early on that his Red Bull RB8 will struggle to match the outright pace of the Mclaren and opted to do Q3 with a set of hard tyres and thus saving a set of primes for the race. This could be the shrewdest move of all come the race and it s ubdoubtedly a decision made with an eye on race strategy.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner commented, “It was a good lap by Mark [Webber]. The grid is pretty close. Lewis [Hamilton] did a very, very strong lap. We’ve seen that they’re quick. Hopefully we can have a strong race. We decided to go with a different strategy with Seb [Vettel]. I think the harder tyres are more durable, it’s just a different strategy. I don’t think we had the single lap pace to take on McLaren. In the race we elected to do something different with the two cars so we’ll see if it makes a difference tomorrow.”
Ninth quickest on the day, was Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari F2012 who again dug deep to deliver a time 1.3 seconds off the top pace. His under fire teammate, Felipe Massa, failed to make it out of Q2 and will start the race from 12th on the grid.
Sergio Perez, made it into Q3, and ended tenth fastest in the Sauber C31 while his team mate Kamui Kobayashi barely made it into Q2 and was slowest in the session. He will start from 17th.
In the mid-pack, Williams failed to deliver despite what promised to be a strong pace. Both their drivers making blatant mistakes when it mattered. Maldonado was particularly lucky not to hit the wall after a cross gravel and grass excursion in Q2, while Senna appeared to struggle in traffic. They will start 11th and 13th respectively.
Also down the order, and also not living up to their pre-season testing form, were the Force India duo with Paul di Resta set to start from 14th and Nico Hulkenberg from 16th. The team owned by beleaguered billionaire Vijay Mallya has slipped down the pecking order in between seasons.
Daniel Ricciardo was again the better of the two Toro Rosso boys and will start his first Malaysian GP from 15th while rookie teammate Jean Eric Vergne failed to make it beyond Q1 and will start from 17th.
Others who took an early shower were the usual suspects: Caterham duo Heikki Kovalainen (19th) and Vitaly Petrov (20th), Marussia pair Timo Glock (21st) and Charles Pic (22nd) while both HRT’s made the cut with Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan set to share the back row of the grid and get their season off to a belated start…at last.
Last word to McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh “I am proud of the team and the drivers, but it’s a long, hard race. Lewis and Jenson are free to do what they want to do. Lewis will feel he wants to come out of first corner in the lead after what happened in Australia. For us it will be a little bit tense for the first few seconds of the race.”
Subbed by AJN.
Qualifying – Sepang, 24 March 2012
|4||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:37.172||1:37.375||1:36.461||19|
|6||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:38.102||1:37.419||1:36.634||14|
|14||11||Paul di Resta||Force India-Mercedes||1:38.325||1:37.877||15|
|16||12||Nico Hulkenberg||Force India-Mercedes||1:38.303||1:37.890||13|
|23||22||Pedro de la Rosa||HRT-Cosworth||1:42.914||4|
|Q1 107% Time||1:43.974|