Lewis Hamilton claimed pole position for the Malaysian Grand Prix after a tense, rain delayed Qualifying session at Sepang International Circuit, but it was a close call as world champion Sebastian Vettel gave Mercedes a run for their money.
Shortly after FP3 the clouds dumped their load on Sepang, as it tends to do this time of the year every afternoon and apparently more so when the Formula 1 rain magnet is in town. For most, bar Mercedes, this was a gift, because there is no way the Silver Arrows were going to be troubled in the dry, where their outright pace was at least a second faster than the next best.
Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are clearly going to be slugging it out this year, and as a result we have scenes reminiscent of the Hamilton-Alonso days at McLaren back in 2007, where they even raced each other to the pit exit. Fast forward to 2014 and Hamilton-Rosberg are pretty much in the same zone, albeit with no animosity present for now, as they dart for top spot in the pit lane exit..
From the outset of the session Hamilton appeared to have a slight edge on Rosberg, and it so transpired in Q3 as Hamilton set the best time on Wets which was over half a second up on his teammate Rosberg , whose best was only good enough for third on the grid.
Hamilton, who equalled Jim Clark’s British record of 33 pole positions in Formula 1, said afterwards, “I’m all over the place at the moment. I’m really happy with how well we’ve done over the weekend, but today was incredible – how heavy was the rain? It was tricky out there for everyone because at the end it was almost impossible to see. I couldn’t see where the track went, where the corners were, where to brake. I had to bail out of my final fast lap, so it was very close.”
Rosberg summed up his afternoon in the wet, “I was a little bit less comfortable on the Full Wets, especially [under] braking. But third is still a decent place to be – who knows what the weather is going to do tomorrow? I’m looking forward to the race now, to try and make the most of third.”
Splitting the Mercedes duo was Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull, which proved to have handy amount of grip in the prevaling conditions. There was a scare early on as the software went on the blink, but a reset appeared to solve the problem and ultimately the quadruple world champion was a mere 0.055 of a second adrift of pole, which suggests that in a wet race he could well take the fight to the Silver Arrows.
Vettel reflected, “At the beginning of Q1, the heartbeat was rising very quickly when we realised there was an issue. I came in, we restarted the car and that seemed to solve the problem. After that it was fine. It was good to go out and get another feel in the wet conditions. Q3 was not perfect. I would have loved to have a second go. My first attempt, I felt there was time to gain here and there. It was very close, too close. I should be on the good side for tomorrow but it depends on how good the start is. I’m happy with the result.”
Fernando Alonso had an incident packed afternoon, a coming together with Daniil Kvyat in Q2, an incident which broke one of the upper front suspension rods. Remarkably the Ferrari crew repaired the damage and sent their man out again. He promptly delivered, to take fourth place on the grid.
Daniel Ricciardo will head up the third row in his Red Bull, ending the session with the fifth best time, albeit almost a second down on his teammate.
Alongside the Australian on the grid will be Kimi Raikkonen who again was out-qualified by teammate Alonso, although only by 0.176 of a second.
As is his trademark, Nico Hulkenberg reveled in the tricky conditions and ended best of the rest of the Mercedes powered brigade. He will start from seventh on the grid, alongside McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen who again outqualified his far more experienced teammate Jenson Button.
Magnussen survived an excursion over the grass and gravel , to keep himself in contention for Q3 where he delivered another strong performance on a track that he has never driven on, under extremely challenging conditions.
Magnussen said, “It was not easy to get it right – we should have gone out on the Wets in the beginning, but I’m still learning about the conditions and the tyres. It’s all good experience for me. Position eight is not bad, though it’s not good either. I do feel the car is quite good in those conditions – we just got the timing a bit wrong. The car is behaving well.”
Button was tenth fastest, victim of a dubious call to run Q3 on Pirelli Intermediate tyres, while everyone else was on the Wets. A gamble that backfired.
“When you’re probably going to be eighth on Wets it’s worth a punt to put on Intermediates. It is what it is. I, we, didn’t think it was going to rain again so it was worth a go, but it was pretty wet out at the back of the track. I chose to go on inters – I normally make the call and get it right, but I didn’t today,” admitted Button.
Splitting the McLaren duo on the timing sheets in ninth place was Jean Eric Vergne who scored Toro Rosso’s best ever starting position at Sepang.
Q1 came to an end with less than a minute to go when Caterham rookie Marcus Ericsson got caught out by the slippery kerbs exiting Turn 3, slithered into the barriers, then bounced off them across the track before coming to a stop just before Turn 4.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, and disappointment to many, was the below par performance by Williams in conditions that clearly did not suit their car and as a result Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas will start 13th and 15th on the grid.
Massa said, “We’re missing some downforce on the car. Again, we’ve not qualified where we should be but we’ll see tomorrow what happens in the race.”
The weather will be a major factor in the race, with Mercedes not enjoying such a big advantage in wet conditions. But also reason for optimism among their rivals is the possibility that the Mercedes W05 may not be too kind to its tyres in race mode at Sepang…
Subbed by AJN.
Malaysian Grand Prix, Qualifying – Saturday, 29 March 2014