The micro-climate of Spa Francochamps never fails to surprise and with degree changes of around 15 degrees even without rain playing were playing havoc with tyre pressures even before a wheel was turned in anger. Those lacking down-force would be cursing the weather. McLaren in particular would be hoping the initial DRS disabled session would bring the field back to them. In the end Button was happy with 6th, believing the position was a true reflection of the MP4-28′s outright pace rather than a consequence of the conditions. Team-mate Sergio Perez showed similar pace but would be caught out in the scramble to change tyres.
With the session not yet underway, those sitting in pit lane under the red starters light were forced to sit impatiently; letting the pressures drop. A few moment later, the opposite occurred, as the rain eased and the risk of overheating the intermediates increased.
As such, Pastor Maldonado overshot the chicane, snatching a left front as he grappled with a half wet/half dry track. At one point the Venezuelan was as high as third and both Williams drivers were unlucky to finish up 17th and 20th respectively. Marussia’s Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi got caught in an unecessary scrap, holding up Lewis Hamilton in the process; -who in turn outbraked himself at the Les Combs. A second go at Bianchi around the outside if the preceding kink to Blanchmont provided another nervous moment he didn’t need on a Saturday afternoon.
Gutierrez surprised everyone early by lapping just 6 tenths of the quickest time set by Nico Rosberg, but with 9 mins remaining and rain now stopped, a swap to new inters or wets would be a precarious decision – the big boys most likely waiting for a brave back market to be a guinea pig.
True to the form guide van der Garde and Pic went out on slicks, Guiedo noticeably lifting through Eau Rougue and dabbing the throttle through Lea Combes.
A set of new inters propelled Maldonado to the top only to be usurped by Webber and then Rosberg. Di Resta lost it at the bus stop.
While the leading cars weren’t under threat from opportunistic back markers it was still a relative game; with Ricciardo and Vergne were caught out (along with Gutierrez) as they were leap-frogged by the slick-shod Marussia’s and Caterhams. A massive disappointment considering Vergne’s pace in practice. Toro Rosso management would later admit to a poor response to the conditions.
As Q2 got underway a dry window emerged with the threat of more rain just around the corner. McLaren mechanics furiously studying the back of Jenson Button’s MP4-28 after he suggested some right rear damage may be apparent.
The early laps saw Webber half a second ahead of Raikkonen, who snapped a front entering the bus stop. Raikkonen then broke the 110 second barrier with a 1:49.3 – half a second ahead of team-mate Grosjean.
Chilton enjoyed a 3 tenth advantage over Bianchi in 11th, though the the gap between the medium and hard tyres was anyone’s guess in the changeable conditions.
Rosberg left his run very late with his banker time some 12 seconds off the pace. With Webber and Vettel trading times, both Red Bull drivers still couldn’t match Alonso – the Ferrari proving competitive.
Rosberg salvaged a third whilst an uncomfortable team-mate Hamilton just scrapped into the top ten. Hulkenberg, Sutil, Perez and van der Garde all missed the cut, but the Dutchman was still happy with his best qualifying effort of the year. Bianchi and Chilton rounded out the order with Jules pipping Max by 2 tenths. Van der Garde will start 8 positions higher than his (still) more fancied team-mate Charles Pic. Yes Giedo’s position is a reflection of a strategic gamble, but with many of the Dutchman’s results having born from this, Pic may need to dig deeper than his reputation.
Q3 began and the rain fell yet again, but with everyone out on dries it would be a desperate first lap dash to get the ultimate time; Vettel in particular muscling Grosjean aside. The sheen appearing on the tyres through Blanchmont was looking like treacle on a lifesaver.
As everyone pitted for inters, di Resta was in the box seat having waited with a ready-fuelled car – his opposition scrambling to refuel for a second run. As the rain became heavier, Paul’s time of 2:02.3 could be the golden ticket he’d been hoping for all year. With nobody able to match his first sector time (including himself) he was looking good.
With most drivers nearly 2 seconds off do Resta’s time in degrading conditions, Rosberg pulled a blinder to get within half a second of the Scot’s time… It was to be a forerunner for what happened next.
The track had evolved yet again. Rosberg, then the Red Bulls then Lewis stealing time off the Force India, to give Hamilton pole in the dying seconds. Lewis’s shift from 7th gear to 6th through Eau Rouge where the track was at its most damp, stabilizing the Mercedes brilliantly as gravity did the rest. Whilst this worked over his qualifying lap, it was the same story on Friday; hinting at a timid approach to engine life. Lewis will need a mighty first lap tomorrow his he’s to avoid a DRS attack from whoever’s staring at his gearbox, especially given both Mercedes were losing most of their time on the straights – an odd phenomenon for the three-pointed star.
Di Resta was understandably crestfallen. While his initial lap was a good one, rain starred to fall whilst he was still in the final sector. Consequently, those exiting the pits later would (although not initially obvious) have the benefit of a relatively cleaner track. Fifth is still an excellent platform for di Resta on Sunday at a track where the Force India usually excels, but on days like this you can live and die by the sword with a turn of the blade. Lewis will do well to bear this in mind tomorrow in a car that (until the weather played a hand) was only good enough for tenth on the grid. The RB9′s long-run pace will be one to watch if they get enough daylight to prove it. On Friday pace at least, Vettel appeared to have a few tenths on Webber via a subjacent rear wing.
Romain Grosjean will want to dispatch Button and di Resta as quickly as possible after qualifying 7th. His long runs on Friday were not far off Webber’s on the same compound. If Red Bull were indeed running lighter, Grosjean and team-mate Raikkonen (who qualified 8th) can’t afford to let them steal a march on the Lotus’s.
Alonso and Massa too will be rueing a lost opportunity after displaying enough pace to be a match for the Red Bulls in the dry. The ‘peaky’ performances of the F138 seems to have been replaced with more consistent platform on which to work off. However, starting 9th and 10th respectively was not what either of them were hoping for and on a day when Fernando’s chief rival (Vettel) narrowly avoided the same fate (virtue of his first timed Q3 lap), some seriously stella calculations will be required at Maranello should the conditions repeat themselves on Sunday.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic