Sochi Saturday Review: Scuderia on another level

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The fourth qualifying Saturday of the season promised to be the closest yet – did it live up to the hype? Absolutely.

Starting with a few early timesheet-toppers in FP3, and finishing with Sebastian Vettel on pole, Ferrari picked up right where it left off on Friday. They’ve brought the fight all season on Sunday, and now with their first 1-2 since 2008, it’s officially been taken to Saturdays too.

Much has been made in the past 24 hours of Mercedes struggles getting temperature into its tyres, and while there’s certainly an issue with back-end grip, make no mistake: this was all Ferrari.

The SF70H plants itself into a corner and stays planted, the kerbs providing less of a disruption than a lawsuit to Bernie Ecclestone, and the advantage it gave Vettel (and Kimi Raikkonen) was obvious.

The team was clearly elated with the performance, as they should be – perhaps Sochi exacerbates the Silver Arrows’ problems, but the Scuderia was simply on another level today.

Also it’s fascinating to see Lewis Hamilton legitimately struggle for once. It doesn’t get more damning than finishing half-a-second back from pole. Sochi might not be his favourite track (Rosberg out-qualified him each of the past two seasons), but his performance today was undeniably poor. Whether he’s up to it or not, it might be on Valtteri Bottas to lead the charge on Sunday.

Outside the top three, it was another tough day for Red Bull, starting with an engine-scare for Daniel Ricciardo, and finishing with their best lap 1.711s off pole in Q3. If there’s 3-tenths between the Renault engine and Mercedes, I’m Vladimir Putin. The French manufacturer is three tenths away from being three tenths away, at the very least.

Speaking of struggling, two drivers who have endured particularly trying starts to the season – Pascal Wehrlein and Jo Palmer – enjoyed similarly dismal Saturdays. Both drivers went off at the end of Q1, although you get the sense that unlike Wehrlein, such incidents are something Palmer increasingly can’t afford.

And what happened to Romain Grosjean? Finishing dead last in the Haas, I haven’t seen a Frenchman this frustrated by Russia since Napoleon invaded in 1812. He clearly had no confidence in the car, and it makes it hard to believe the P6 in Melbourne qualy was little more than a month ago.

After making an appearance in paddock in Bahrain, the aforementioned Ecclestone took it to another level in Sochi, showing up with his crew in matching jackets. If we don’t get a musical showdown between his gang and the Liberty Media boys, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

On a final note, it was highly alarming to hear Fernando Alonso say the “car felt good” at the end of Q1. Few things can be more indicative of the apocalypse than the Spaniard praising his McLaren, thankfully he was back to blasting it by Q2 – crisis averted!