You could be forgiven for thinking that the result of qualifying for Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix was a forgone conclusion if you had looked at the ominous pace of the two Red Bull’s – Sebastian Vettel in particular – over the course of Friday and Saturday morning. However, while Vettel did indeed walk to his third consecutive pole position in India at a canter, the battle to decide the rest of the grid was a far more interesting proposition.
If Sebastian Vettel’s dominance around the Buddh International Circuit had not been made evident enough in practice, then the quadruple-champion elect underlined it once and for all during Q1. Vettel, confident that he could make it through Q1 with a single run on the medium compound tyres, with just five minutes of the session remaining, went and set a lap that can only be described as brutal. The German went second fastest with a laptime of 1:25.943, just a hundredth down on Fernando Alonso’s then session topping time. You could almost hear Fernando Alonso’s heart sink to the bottom of his stomach. Vettel, on the medium compound Pirelli’s, which were thought to be around a second a lap slower than the yellow marked softs that were on Alonso’s Ferrari, had almost matched the Spaniard. The fact that Mark Webber, who himself tried a set of the soft tyres, could only better his team-mates time by three tenths really says everything you need to know about this remarkable 26-year-old.
The only other man to try Vettel’s tactic of going for a single medium tyre run in Q1 was Romain Grosjean, hero of Suzuka just one week ago. It didn’t quite work out for him this time though. The Lotus boys were obviously confident that the Frenchman’s initial run would be good enough to see him through into Q2, just as had been the case in Suzuka. A lap of 1:26.577 was some six tenths down on what Vettel had produced on the same tyre, but with just two minutes of the session to go it looked like to have been another astute call by Lotus, with Romain sitting pretty in tenth. But as Hamilton, Button, Perez and the two Toro Rosso’s all improved massively on the soft tyre, Grosjean’s name began to tumble down the order, leaving him just 15th, ahead of Massa. Bottas, who has fallen at the first post a number of times this season, then pulled out an unexpected stonker of a lap to jump into 14th. Grosjean, believing he was still safe aborted his lap, only for Massa to then go 4th fastest, knocking the Lotus man out of qualifying. Knockout qualifying had claimed another big scalp.
While two Frenchman had shown the paddock how not to do it in Q1, another, in Jules Bianchi, showed the world once again why he is a star in waiting by not only beating both Caterham’s, but also giving his Marussia stable-mate another proverbial thrashing. The Ferrari protégé outqualfied his well-funded team-mate Max Chilton – who was curiously linked with a Force India drive by David Croft last weekend – by over a second. In fact he was only two tenths off legitimately outqualifying the lacklustre Williams of Pastor Maldonado, and that is all with a car that has not been developed since the Spanish Grand Prix, way back in May.
An honourable mention should also go to Jenson Button, who managed to top Q1 for McLaren with an excellent lap of 1:25.574, some nine hundredths faster than Webber’s all mighty Red Bull.
With the entire field now kitted out with the soft compound Pirelli’s, Q2 proceeded as you would pretty much expect it. While he may have left it late, Vettel stamped his name on the top of the timesheets with a 1:24.568. However, this time at least Fernando Alonso gave the haters of the finger some hope, with a laptime of 1:24.885, good enough to split the Red Bull’s in second, suggesting that his Ferrari was perhaps not quite as useless as it had appeared in Q1.
Mark Webber in the sister Red Bull has reason to be worried though. His first lap was some five tenths slower than his team-mates and that was with the Australian using all of the track and then some, so much in fact that his team sent him out again as a precaution, fearing that his initial time would be deleted. Mark was not penalised, and it was probably just as well, because there was hardly a driver who had not exceeded the limits of the track at some point during the session. Apparently it’s completely fine to drive wherever you like now, unless you’ve just pulled a ballsy move around the outside of a Ferrari at Hungary. That is most definitely not allowed.
Jenson Button reminded everyone once again in Q2 that underneath all the talk of his ‘smooth’ style, actually exists a mightily fast racing driver, setting an absolutely mega lap on a set of used soft tyres which saw him progress through into Q3. To see the 2009 champion only nine tenths of a second off Vettel, on used tyres, in what everyone has admitted is a dog of a McLaren, was certainly impressive.
Other than that, Q2 saw the usual midfield suspects eliminated, although it was interesting to note that the Force India’s seemed to able to match the Toro Rosso’s. The Silverstone-based squad desperately need a turnaround in form fast, with a revitalised Sauber reeling them in for sixth in the constructors’ championship. They will have to hope for bad luck to befall Nico Hulkenberg though, who once again easily progressed into Q3 and the top-ten, and looks set to take a further bite out of their points advantage.
Onwards to Q3, a 10 minute session which for one single flickering moment looked like it could deliver a much needed Saturday surprise to the F1 fan base, but which would ultimately underwhelm, much in the way that the 2013 season has itself. Going into the final round of qualifying the question was, which tyre would the front runners go for. The medium Pirelli’s would clearly be the weapon of choice come Sunday, but the soft compound tyres, thought to warrant a whole seconds worth of improvement over the mediums, could potentially get you onto the front two rows of the grid if used wisely.
As the session began Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso gave a glimmer of hope of what could be to come as they went out on the medium tyres. The major interest rested on McLaren though, who had looked very good on the softs in Q1 and Q2. Could they perhaps spring an upset if the majority of the front-runners went for the safer medium tyre?
That hope was totally shattered when five minutes into the session Sebastian Vettel, on a set of new option tyres, proceeded to smash the Buddh International Circuit’s lap record with a laptime of 1:24.119.
The two Mercedes, who had been so dominant themselves in qualifying earlier in the year, had a crack at beating Vettel’s time, but even with the advantage of the soft tyres Rosberg and Hamilton could only manage second and third on the grid, eight and nine tenths down on the imperious Red Bull star respectively.
Mark Webber put himself in great stead for Sunday’s race with an excellent 1:25.047 on the prime tyres to line-up fourth, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen in sixth, who did nothing to dissuade journalists from their constant questions on his motivation by failing to beat the Australian, even though he was on the ‘faster’ option tyre, as well as losing out to the man he is set to replace at Ferrari, Felipe Massa who will start fifth. In fact the Finn was fortunate to not lose his third row start to Nico Hulkenberg, who once again shouted ‘come and get me’ to Eric Boullier with a great run to seventh.
Fernando Alonso, who like Webber opted for the medium tyres, will start eight, ahead of the two similarly shod McLaren’s. Somewhat surprisingly it was Sergio Perez who outqualied his team-mate Jenson Button, who had been excellent on the soft tyre in both Q1 and Q2.
Ultimately, Sebastian Vettel may have his detractors, who claim that without his Red Bull steed he would be found out to be a fraud, but I dare anyone who watched the utter domination of his qualifying performance on Saturday to question that there is certainly something very special about this soon to be four times world champion.
Images courtesy of Pirelli Media, Marussia F1 Team,Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and Octane Photographic