A rather cruel rumour was doing the rounds earlier this week, which claimed Red Bull Racing were planning to quietly move Mark Webber into retirement a few races early, so as to allow Daniel Ricciardo, as well as the newly crowned GP3 Champion Daniil Kvyat, a shot in their respective seats for next year. Unfortunately, no one had informed Mark Webber about this arrangement though, as the Australian rolled back the years, putting in a thumping qualify lap, which left the man with seemingly all the answers, Sebastian Vettel, completely staggered.
Unlike last weekend in India, where we could all chuckle at Romain Grosjean’s misfortune, as Lotus managed to bundle the only man who had a chance of troubling the Red Bull’s out in Q1, while also having the fortune to see Sebastian Vettel’s demonstration of pure brilliance, qualifying at Abu Dhabi was a less fancy affair. Nevertheless, up and down the field there were performances and blunders of note to analyse, so analyse it we shall.
The first point that sticks out from Q1 was that Mark Webber was faster than Sebastian Vettel. You can forgive the four times champion that one though. He was probably tired having given the guys at Red Bull a hand with packing away after his championship victory in India after all. What was more interesting at this stage was that Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean genuinely seemed to have the legs to match the Red Bull’s in this early stage of qualifying.
In contrast to Lotus and Red Bull, Friday had been horrible for Ferrari, especially by the Scuderia’s high standards, as both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso struggled with a lack of direction on set-up, blaming the altering circumstances in both sessions for leading them on a wild goose-chase. Saturday started no better for the men in red, as Alonso and Massa could do no better than 11th and 14th fastest in FP3. The situation was so bad even, that Ferrari actually asked FOM to have the new revolving camera removed from Alonso’s F138. Instead it was the hapless Kimi Raikkonen who was stuck with F1’s new toy. However, once the two Ferrari’s bolted on the soft tyres in Q1 both Alonso, and to an even greater extent Felipe Massa began to fly, with Massa finishing the session in second, only beaten by a late quick lap from Lewis Hamilton. Alonso was back in fifth, just two tenths shy of his soon to be ex- team-mate.
While the Scuderia had apparently magically overcame their miseries from Friday, Esteban Gutierrez and Adrian Sutil were having a Saturday from hell, as they both found themselves with nothing to do for the final 40 minutes after being knocked out in Q1. With just two three races to go including this one, now is not the time to be underperforming, especially when neither driver’s future is exactly clear, with just about everyone being linked with a seat at Sauber and Force India recently, even Max Chilton. It won’t have helped either man’s cause that they were also both out qualified in Q1 by their team-mates by a tidy figure of around four tenths of a second. For Gutierrez, this shortfall in Q1 was made all the more evident by Nico Hulkenberg’s ability to mix it with the Lotus’ in Q3 in the other Sauber C32. This is a shame for the Mexican, who had matched Hulkenberg in FP3 earlier in the day.
Jules Bianchi, who we lavished with praise last weekend for the performance advantage over his team-mate Max Chilton, once again delivered the goods, some eight tenths up on the man in the other Marussia, as well as getting himself ahead of Charles Pic. Pic’s Caterham wingman Giedo van der Garde also deserves an acknowledgement for winning the battle of the not so new teams once again.
With the usual suspects eliminated and Sutil and Gutierrez there to join them on the sidelines, the session rolled onwards to Q2, as the sun began to set around the Yas Marina circuit, with laptimes began to ramp up as the temperature started to fall and the track rubbered in.
Track temperature was not doing Red Bull any favours though, as Q2 was all about the two Mercedes cars at the top of the timesheets, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton unattainable with almost identical times. It was the winner in Monaco who came out on top this time, with Rosberg’s time of 1:40.473 a mere four thousandths of a second better than Hamilton’s lap of 1:40.477. Talk about close.
In fact, this session was one of the most tightly fought of the year, with shades of Q2 in Monza, as less than a second separated Nico Rosberg from the two Williams cars of Pastor Maldonado and Valteri Bottas in 15th and 16th.
I very much doubt Fernando Alonso harbours great memories of the Yas Marina circuit, having lost the 2010 championship here after falling foul of the world’s widest Renault in 2010. What happened today is unlikely to change that, as the Spaniard missed out on a spot in Q3 for the first time in 2013, having managed a lap only good enough for 11th fastest. To add insult to injury, it was Felipe Massa, who held the all-important 10th position. Other than breaking the Brazilian’s gearbox seal, again, there is little that the Scuderia can do about it now. Alarm bells have to ringing out over at Maranello after this weekend’s display, as to see Ferrari’s dismal slump in performance recently is really quite something to behold.
Williams also deserve an honourable mention, as having made the decision to remove the troublesome coanda exhaust from the car on Friday, they find themselves closer to the front of the field that at any other stage this year, Bottas’ freak third in Canada aside. 15th and 16th is hardly the sign of a miracle turn-around for one of Formula One’s greatest teams, but the fact that they legitimately out qualified both Esteban Gutierrez, as well as Adrian Sutil is a good starting point. They will be desperate to score some more points before the end of the year, so keep an eye out for them during the race as they could potentially mix it up with the Force India’s and the Toro Rosso’s.
In regards to Mark Webber watch, lo and behold the Australian trumped his team-mate once again in Q2, this time by two tenths, as the Red Bull’s slotted neatly into third and fourth behind the all-powerful Mercedes.
As Q3 kicked off, the question on everyone’s lips was “could anyone possibly stop Red Bull or Sebastian Vettel from taking another pole position?” Mercedes looked the most likely option to spoil the Red Bull party, but could they deliver on their pace shown in Q2? Webber may have been quicker than Vettel in both Q1 and Q2, but surely no one was seriously considering the Australian for pole. I can safely say that I certainly wasn’t.
The two Mercedes were out early in the session and seemingly had the legs on the Lotus’ and the best of the rest who had progressed into Q3. But if there was even a small hope for the former kings of qualifying, Sebastian Vettel put pay to all of that that with a lap of 1:40.091, the quickest of the weekend so far and some three tenths up on what the Silver Arrows could muster. Cue collective groans all around the world.
Mark Webber, in contrast to his team-mate, had a relatively disappointing first run, only fifth behind Kimi Raikkonen. What happened next though was almost certainly not in the script. Webber, on the soft tyres, which were the Pirelli’s of choice for the entire field throughout qualifying, produced an absolutely stunning lap to go fastest of all. It was a lap reminiscent of the Jaguar days, as out of nowhere the Australian stunned the collective F1 audience. Surely though Vettel or the Mercedes, who were still on hot laps would interfere? It would not be the Mercedes, as first Rosberg failed to improve his time, before mere moments later Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes spun off with a broken wishbone.
Vettel only needed to improve by 0.135 to take pole, but ultimately it was not to be. Webber’s time had the beating of his team-mate, for only the second time this year. Not only that, but he was the first man into the 1:39’s all weekend.
Nico Hulkenberg, who could potentially face the quite frankly ridiculous prospect of finding himself without a drive next year, once again displayed the kind of quality that is becoming expected of him by splitting the Lotus’ of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, to finishing sixth fastest overall.
The Frenchman in the #8 E21 looked out of sorts in Q3, after an amusing incident in which he tore up the paint on his garage floor after a burnout. Not being paid might also be the last of Kimi Raikkonen’s worries this weekend, after the Finn was disqualified post-qualifying for a technical infringement on the Lotus’ floor. He will start last and will have to earn his pay if he is to have any hope of a repeat win in Abu Dhabi.
Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez both carried their good form on from India, taking eighth and ninth respectively, which is impressive for two men who have spent most of the year under the yoke of their team-mates. What are the odds on Massa beating his team-mate on Sunday for a second consecutive weekend?
Toro Rosso have been fairly anonymous over the last few races, with just a single point to write home about from the fly-aways, but Daniel Ricciardo produced a stunning lap to progress into Q3, which should remind all those at home why exactly it was that Red Bull signed him to fill Mark Webber’s boots. The Australian ended up 10th overall.
When people look back on Mark Webber’s Formula One career in years’ to come, I hope it is for day’s like this that the man is remembered, rather than for all the cursed luck that he has experienced. Remember that raw speed, that was always so evident in his younger days and which, while masked somewhat this year, made itself clear once again at Abu Dhabi. He may be off to Porsche in a few months, but there is certainly still life in the old dog yet.
Images courtesy of Pirelli Media