Mercedes poached Lewis Hamilton from McLaren and the move is starting to pay dividends, as the Briton powered to his first pole position as a Silver Arrows driver, when he scorched around Shanghai International Circuit to claim top spot on the grid for the Chinese Grand Prix after an intriguing qualifying session.
Hamilton was constantly at the sharp end of proceedings and by Q2 was clearly favourite for pole. With just about everyone opting for a single flyer in Q3, it was Hamilton who maxed the lap with a time of 1:34.484, which was a quarter second up on next the next best.
Somewhat bemused in the post qualifying press conference Hamilton said, “It’s an incredible feeling. So happy to have our first pole for some time. I’m just ecstatic really. The lap was great. The team has performed well all weekend so far. I hope we can carry it into tomorrow. It’s really surprising, in P3 the Ferraris were very quick but we had really good pace in Q1 and Q2 but that last lap is really tough to get. We left it down to the last three minutes so you’ve got to get perfect out lap and the perfect lap. I really can’t complain about that lap.”
“These tyres are very tricky this weekend, making the option tyre last is almost impossible, so it’s probably going to be a short stint at the start apart from for this guy [Raikkonen] who seems to be able to look after tyres better than most people. But we have good race pace. I expect a tough race but I hope we can maintain position.” added Hamilton.
Kimi Raikkonen surprised everyone, perhaps even himself by setting the second best time. The Lotus driver summed up his afternoon, “I think the gap is quite big. We don’t have that speed right now. Second is not too bad. I think it’s the best I’ve achieved with the team. I would rather be in first place but we don’t have the speed. We’re missing downforce in the middle sector. We’ll have to see what we can do.”
Prior to qualifying Ferrari were looking strong and capable of ending their pole drought that stretches to last year’s German GP. But when it mattered Fernando Alonso could only manage the third best time. Felipe Massa was fifth fastest.
Alonso said, “This weekend has been good for us. The car has been competitive from Friday and this morning we made changes and the car responded well. We have a good set up for the race, which is the most important thing. If everything goes well, we should fight for the podium with both cars.”
Splitting the Ferrari duo on the timing screens was Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes. His final lap time was 0.377 down on Hamilton’s best. Rosberg will start from fourth place on the grid.
“I’m generally quite pleased with qualifying. I was playing a little bit of catch up because of the hydraulic problem in practice. I was still finding my way. In the end, it was a decent lap until the last corner where I messed up a bit. I didn’t get it quite right. But we have have a good race car, especially for tomorrow,” said Rosberg.
Romain Grosjean will no doubt be perplexed by the strong pace of his Lotus teammate. The Frenchman has matched Raikkonen throughout the free practice sessions, but on the final stretch in Q3 he was only good for sixth, and was over half a second down on the other black and gold car.
Star of qualifying was Daniel Ricciardo who impressed in both Q2 and Q3 in the Toro Rosso. The Australian ended the day seventh fastest, but more significantly was almost a second up on teammate Jean Eric Vergne in Q2.
Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg opted to bolt on the hard Pirelli tyres (white band) while the top seven were all on the softer option (yellow band). Button did a half hearted lap and will start eighth but unlike the rest of the grid ahead of him he will have the harder tyres which should give him a longer first stint – an intriguing strategy gamble.
Button reflected, “It’s difficult judging how slow I could actually go. It was the idea before qualifying. We wanted to look at where our pace was. It’s such a difficult call. The racer in you wants to go out. In Q2, we were relatively quick. P7 was a slight surprise, we were quicker than we expected. I felt we got everything out of the car. We went for the prime direction. It was a bit of cat and mouse at end to see who actually does a lap.”
Vettel and Hulkenberg did not complete a timed lap in Q3 and thus will be able to choose the tyre compound they want to use before they line up on the grid and specualtion is they will follow Button’s lead and give it a go with the harder tyre.
The world champion commented, “I think you could see I locked up quite a bit [on his Q3 lap] I don’t know what happened. I lost the brake pedal, something broke. I checked the tyre, there was no damage. We’ll see. It was interesting, a different approach to usual. Four minutes to end, it was completely silent out on track and then everyone left at the same time. We’ve got the advantage of choosing our tyres.”
There was drama at the start of Q2when Mark Webber’s Red Bull coasted to a halt with a fuel pressure problem. Ending the Australian’s session early and relegating him to 14th on the grid. Although it could the Red Bull driver could be sent to the back of the grid should the tank on the RB9 not have ebough fuel for an FIA sample… watch this space.
“We had a lack of fuel pressure so I couldn’t get back. My qualifying was over before it started. The option is not really our tyre for this track. It’s disappointing, Q1 went very well, I felt good in the car and felt good all weekend. I don’t know. We’ll have to see what the rules are. Double-whammy, maybe,” said Webber after his walk to the pits.
There were no other big surprises down the order, although Paul di Resta (11th) did get the better from his comeback teammate Adrian Sutil (13th).
Williams are in a woeful state at the moment with Valterri Bottas failing to make it beyond Q1 and will start 17th, while Pastor Maldonado was good for 15th – a far cry from last year when the team was constantly in the top ten and even won the Spanish GP.
Sauber rookie Esteban Gutierrez also failed to make it beyond Q1 and will start 18th.
Both Marussia drivers out-qualified the Caterham pair, with Jules Bianchi comfortably fastest of the quartet as he has been all season. The pecking order at the back appears to be Caterham trailing Marussia.
Final word to Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn: “I’m delighted of course. It always takes a bit of time to settle into a team but I saw this weekend that Lewis was beginning to gel with his engineers and understand the car and I think we’ve seen the result of that today.”
On strategy for the race Brawn said, “Those of us on the option tyre will be coming in fairly early. It will be interesting watching guys who have qualified on the the prime tyres. We’ll see how the race develops, it will be a fascinating race.”
Qualifying Result, Shanghai – Saturday, 13 April 2013