Qualifying Analysis: First blood to Mercedes, Ricciardo stars, and Raikkonen hits the wall, again
After months of endless chatter the opening qualifying session of the 2014 season is now just history. Was it worth the wait? Well, if you like grumpy Frenchman and laughing at Pastor Maldonado’s expense, certainly. On a serious note, what did we learn from this opening hour long shootout? Our very own sleep deprived Dan Paddock runs you through the talking points from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix.
Ever since Jerez the story has been that Mercedes would turn up at Melbourne and hand out a 1998 McLaren style humiliation to the entire field. Now, today’s qualifying session was wet, which means that we will have to wait until Sunday to really see if the boys and girls at Brackley have truly built the monster of a car that we all fear, but still, it was not a bad day for the Silver Arrows. I am sure there will have been those fans who had a right good laugh when Lewis Hamilton ground to a halt after just five minutes of FP1 on Friday, but on the back of today’s result, Mercedes, as long as their reliability holds, will be the team to beat, at least initially.
It would be a disservice to move on without recognising what a cracker of a lap Lewis’s pole time was. Having fluffed his best lap in FP3, and with Nico Rosberg driving beautifully, pole looked to be Nico’s for the taking, but Lewis pulled out a right stonker to pinch the top spot, but not from his team-mate as expected, but from Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull.
But I thought Red Bull were rubbish I hear you cry. On the basis of the running we have seen so far this weekend, that might not quite be the case. On Friday alone Sebastian Vettel completed a third of the entire amount of running he managed over the course of 12 days of testing. And not only has the RB10 lost its tendency to go on fire, but as Vettel’s fourth quickest time in FP2 shows, it is quite a handy machine.
However, on Saturday it was Daniel Ricciardo who produced the goods for Red Bull, not the four time champion in the garage next-door. Second on the grid is a huge credit to a man, who some, in my mind foolishly, questioned whether he was ready/deserving for the second Red Bull seat. Wow, second in a wet session, am I not getting ahead of myself? Well, maybe a touch, but put simply, Ricciardo was the only man who at any stage seriously questioned the Mercedes pair over the course of the hour.
It remains to be seen what Daniel can do on Sunday, will he, as he did so often in his Toro Rosso days, fall down the field after out performing his car on Saturday? Maybe, but regardless of that, he has given both the Australian fans, whose roars you could hear as he snatched that provisional pole, as well as the guys at Red Bull something to smile about.
Much has been written about two of this year’s F1 rookies (Sorry Marcus Ericsson) in Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat. One has been mistakingly called by his Dad’s name, while the other, well, some people cannot pronounce his name at all. Both are graduating champions, Kevin, or Kev, as he likes to be called, joining McLaren having convincingly won the Formula Renault 3.5 title last year, while Daniil won the 2013 GP3 crown in some style with Arden, with a seat at Toro Rosso his reward.
In fact, so highly do McLaren rate Magnussen that they dumped Sergio Perez and locked Martin Whitmarsh in the MTC dungeon (the second part of that statement may not be 100 per cent true). In doing so Magnussen becomes the first rookie to race for McLaren since Lewis Hamilton, that is quite an expectation to live up to.
The status quo of 2007 that so allowed Lewis to dazzle is long gone, but his 21-year-old predecessor did not half make a good start to his F1 career on Saturday with fourth fastest overall. The Dane quietly went about his business throughout the session, dodging the ‘weather problems’ that affected his much more experienced team-mate, and as a reward will join Nico Rosberg on the second row of the grid, much to the delight of Ron Dennis.
Kvyat did not have a bad Saturday either, progressing, along with his team-mate, all the way to Q3, where despite a minor brush with the wall late on, he qualified eighth, ahead of the Williams duo.
Again, it is a bit early to be thinking too far ahead, but if this initial sign of promise translates into outright genuine pace, then both men could be a threat to the longevity of their team-mates F1 careers.
Talking of team-mates, Kvyat’s Toro Rosso partner Jean-Eric Vergne, who, having looked rubbish since it became evident that he would not get the seat alongside Sebastian Vettel, was excellent today. The Frenchman, who at most has a year left at Toro Rosso before he is, A. forced to pack up and become a DJ, or B. drive trucks in America, must convince someone other than Red Bull that he is worthy of a race seat. He simply must dominate the young Russian, or his Formula One career will be over. A strong drive into the points, which he has not scored since last year’s Canadian Grand Prix, would be a strong start.
The revival of Williams has been one of the talking points of the winter break, first they managed to replace arch-villain Pastor Maldonado, with everyone’s favourite Ferrari refugee Felipe Massa, then they shined throughout the pre-season tests, and finally they blew the pants of everyone when they unveiled their new Martini livery. Face it, Williams are cool now.
However, for all the promise show over the winter, and the strong signs seen on Friday, Williams disappointed in qualifying. Felipe Massa, who flirted with the outside wall between turn nine and ten all day, ended Q3 just ninth, one spot ahead of his team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who faces a five place grid penalty after his gearbox went kaput in FP2. Everyone at Williams, and I suspect many fans of the team, and of the vermouth brand their car now carries, will be hoping for more on Sunday.
As the first big scalps knocked out during qualifying, if you don’t count Lotus, which in this case, no one does, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel present themselves as perfect targets for a bit of a bashing in this here analysis.
While Vettel’s disappointing performance can be somewhat brushed aside by a reported software problem that limited his power and drivability, Raikkonen once again did not look at all comfortable at the wheel of the F14 T. Truth be told the Finn has looked like he has been struggling for confidence in the car ever since he first got his mits on it in Jerez.
This lack of confidence under braking, an area which his prior mount, the Lotus, always excelled at, has been evident so far this weekend in Melbourne, with the Finn making countless off track excursions. It was his most recent ‘excursion’ that actually brought a premature end to his qualifying session, marooning him down in 12th.
Kimi blamed the fact that he was fiddling with the switches on the steering wheel of his car for his accident coming out of turn three, late in Q2. Quite why Ferrari would add a switch with the sole function of making their driver spin coming out of a traction zone, and in the process hit the inside wall, to their new steering wheels is beyond me, but despite this Raikkonen said he would not have made it out of Q2 anyway.
Even the hope of hearing the Finn mutter his infamous words, “I hit the wall,” won’t be much of a comfort for his countless fans. Raikkonen won this race in serene style last year, and while it might be too much to hope for a repeat performance, if the Iceman can conjure up anything close to that level he should be well on for a bucket of points.
We have all missed Kamui Kobayashi, we may have forgotten all about him last year when he went and raced those cars with, wait for it, tin roofs, but the former-Sauber man is a popular figure with fans, and one who everyone is happy to see back in F1. But you could well have been forgiven for forgetting that Kamui had made a comeback this weekend, as he has spent most of the first two days of running in Australia watching on from the Caterham garage.
Despite this, the Japanese ace reminded us what we have all been missing over the last 12 months, as he hauled his Caterham into Q2, ending the second part of qualifying in 15th, just two tenths shy of Adrian Sutil’s Sauber, and ahead of the spinning Sergio Perez. Not bad for a guy who had completed just a single laps of running on Friday. Kamui, it is good to have you back.
Max Chilton has taken something of a bashing in the pages of this analysis over the last few race weekends, stretching right back to the Indian Grand Prix, when, as I put it, Jules Bianchi handed the well-funded young man in the other Marussia a proverbial thrashing. Max is an easy man to wack with the Bianchi stick, but on Saturday in Melbourne he out-qualified Jules fair and square, only the third time he has done so in the year that they have spent as team-mates at Marussia.
However, on both prior occasions that Chilton has outdone the Ferrari protege, Bianchi has been afflicted by problems. Monaco he had an engine failure, while in Suzuka he completed barely any running before attempting to qualify at the daunting high speed track.
But this morning, in the tricky wet conditions seen in Q1, Bianchi was genuinely outpaced by the man from Surrey. In fact, Chilton was unfortunate to miss out on a spot in Q2. Credit where it is due, it was a fine performance from Max Chilton.
And finally we come to Lotus. Where do you begin? Months of uncertainty over the team’s future, an exodus of staff, a delayed launch of their car, followed by a troubled pre-season, and then they turn up and lock-out the back row of the grid. Lotus, as Lotus do, made light of the situation via perhaps their last shining light, their social media feed, but to be honest there is nothing comical about the situation. As is stands Pastor Maldonado is only running under clearance by the stewards, the Venezuelan having failed to set a time. Going by Romain Grosjean’s animated radio messages, the Frenchman would probably love it if the stewards stopped him from starting the race, such is his distaste for the E22. As a small saving grace, even if he is unfortunate enough to have to take the start, going by the team’s reliability record the car will almost inevitably go up in flames after just a handful of laps anyway.
Dan Paddock is an FIA accredited freelance motorsport and Formula 1 journalist and the Grand Prix Editor of Richland F1. Dan joined the site in July 2013 as a Staff Writer, fresh off the back of completing a master’s degree in journalism. Following a promotion, Dan has since gone on to represent Richland F1 at four grands prix. Aside from Richland F1, Dan also writes for Rumble Strip News, as well as maintaining his own modest blog.