Doubts linger among certain pundits that Sebastian Vettel and his fans cannot lay claim to him being a great, well in qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix, the triple world champion rubbished the theories as he mastered tricky conditions to claim pole position for Round 2 of the Formula 1 world championship.
With rain thoroughly wetting the Sepang track surface in the dying moments of Q2, it meant that Q3 would be tackled with intermediates by the remaining ten drivers. And with the track drying at a rate of about two seconds per lap, those who were at the rear of the pack were likely to benefit the most.
Arguably this did help Vettel to a certain degree, but a true measure was that his closest challenger, Felipe Massa completed his final tour after the Red Bull driver had crossed the line for the final time in the session, bagging his 38th Formula 1 career pole in the process.
And the gap between Vettel and Massa, who will start front he front row, was astoundingly just shy of a second, and the difference between Vettel and his teammate Mark Webber – who ended fifth fastest – was a resounding 2.5 seconds.
They say a true measure of a driver’s prowess is his ability in the wet. Vettel won his first race in the wet. And throughout his career he has consistently been strong in adverse conditions. Case closed.
Vettel said afterwards, “It was an interesting qualifying as we knew the rain was on the way. We expected some at the beginning of qualifying so we took a bit of a different approach to other people. Q2 was quite on edge and I think the rain probably helped us a little bit otherwise we would have had to go out again. It was just enough to go to Q3 where with the circuit drying. It was clear that it was probably better to change tyres [midway through] – we confirmed that pretty early – and I think we did the right thing. I’m a bit surprised by the gap. I had a decent lap and we managed to save tyres which could be crucial for tomorrow.”
As he did in Australia a week earlier, Massa got the better of his Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso and will start the race from the front of the grid. Ferrari will be buoyed with the strong showing in challenging conditions, and optimistic that their F138 is handy in both wet and dry conditions. Alonso was third best and will head up the second row.
Massa reflected, “I don’t know if we would be able to be second and third in the dry. There were some other fast cars – Webber and also Kimi. It was a good qualifying from us, we took the right decision to change tyres so maybe the rain helped a bit.”
Alonso commented, “We will try to do a good race and try and score as many points as possible. We are not sure about the performance of the car [in terms of] race pace. Every run we do is inconsistent. We need to see how the race goes. We have not had big problems during the long runs on Friday. In Melbourne, the race pace was OK so there is no reason not to be optimistic tomorrow.”
Top of the timing screens on a couple of occasions during Q3, Lewis Hamilton ended fourth fastest with his teammate Nico Rosberg set to start from sixth on the grid.
Australian GP winner Kimi Raikkonen started the Melbourne race from seventh on the grid, he was seventh again this time out but the stewards found that he had impeded Nico Rosberg during Q3 and was handed a three place grid penalty – he will start from tenth.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, on the day, has been the turnaround by McLaren, admittedly they still lag behind the pace setters, they nevertheless have found a step forward and were actually quite handy in the conditions in Q3, but were also able to make it beyond Q2 when the track was still dry.
Jenson Button was eighth best, with Sergio Perez rounding out the top ten. The pair were bumped up a place each on the grid thanks to Raikkonen’s indiscretion.
Ninth fastest and again showing impressively was Adrian Sutil in the Force India, he also benefited from the penalty handed to Raikkonen and will start eighth. Apart from comprehensively outshining teammate Paul di Resta, the comeback German ended Q1 faster than anyone and may well have been higher up the grid, than ninth, had he been luckier in Q3.
There were some high profile casualties in Q2 including Romain Grosjean in the Lotus who was unfortunate to miss out on the fast lap window of opportunity in the session. By the time he emerged to do his hot lap rain had slowed the track down substantially and it was all in vain. He was 11th and out of Q3.
Di Resta hogged the live coverage airtime with his exploits which included messing up his first fast run in the dry, and then spinning in the wet. The Scot, who will start 15th, appears to be succumbing to the pressure of Sutil’s good form.
Pastor Maldonado planned to give it one shot in Q2 at the very end of the session. When the rain started to come down the Williams driver unbuckled himself from the cockpit and trundled down to the post qualy interview area. He will start from 16th.
It was an early shower for his teammate Valtteri Bottas who failed to make it out of Q1. he will start from 18th on the grid.
Marussia’s Jules Bianchi was again best of the back marker brigade, with Giedo van der Garde slowest of all in the Caterham.
Final word to pole sitter Vettel, “If you start in the front, you always want to finish there as well. As Fernando touched on, it will be a long race and it’s difficult to know the true pace. We confirmed what we saw in Melbourne. I’m happy with the balance of the car. Considering where we were here last year [in terms of performance], it’s a big step forward. Managing tyres will be crucial and then we go from there. Hopefully we can get to chequered flag in the same position.”
Qualifying Results, Sepang – Saturday, 23 March 2013