Qualifying Analysis: Certainties, brollies and enigmas

Qualifying Analysis: Certainties, brollies and enigmas

In Malaysia, there are two types of weather: a) hot and humid, or b) torrential rain. Qualifying for tomorrow’s grand prix was definitely a case of the latter as a deluge struck the Sepang International Circuit around 30 minutes before the first session was scheduled to begin, and it would define a rather exciting session on Saturday.

Let’s get one thing straight though: the result was pretty much what we expected. Having dominated practice on Friday and Saturday morning, Mercedes was pretty much guaranteed to bag pole position barring something out of the ordinary. Although the heavy rain did threaten to be exactly that, both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg excelled to ensure that it did not put a dampener on their day. In Q1 and Q2, they led the field with ease and appeared to be unstoppable. Come the final session though, Rosberg struggled in the wet conditions and had to settle for third place. Back-to-back pole man Hamilton will be delighted with his performance though, and he is confident that there is more pace in the W05 than what was on offer in qualifying.

We’re yet to see a car besides a Mercedes top a session in Malaysia. In fact, Fernando Alonso is the only non-Mercedes driver to have finished fastest in an official session this year:

WHO FINISHED FASTEST?

Australia FP1 – Fernando Alonso (Rosberg P6)SNE19876_copy
Australia FP2 – Lewis Hamilton (Rosberg P2)
Australia FP3 – Nico Rosberg (Hamilton P4)
Australia Qualifying – Lewis Hamilton (Rosberg P3)
Australia Race – Nico Rosberg (Hamilton DNF)

Malaysia FP1 – Lewis Hamilton (Rosberg P3)
Malaysia FP2 – Nico Rosberg (Hamilton P4)
Malaysia FP3 – Nico Rosberg (Hamilton P2)
Malaysia Qualifying – Lewis Hamilton (Rosberg P3)

Pretty ominous, eh?

The stand-out performance of qualifying came from Sebastian Vettel who, given his form over the past four and a half years, is something we don’t say often. Even when he took pole by over half a second at the end of 2013, it wouldn’t have been as impressive as his performance today. In the wet conditions, where he has been known to excel, Vettel held a candle to the Mercedes drivers and very nearly burned them. Just 0.055 seconds separated him from yet another pole position, but after the winter horribilis at Milton Keynes, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. As I wrote in my post-qualifying analysis for NBC Sports, this could actually be a great chance for Vettel to take another remarkable win in the wet.

A RIDDLE WRAPPED IN A MYSTERY WRAPPED IN AN ENIGMA

Can anyone really put their finger on Ferrari’s pace at the beginning of this season? It’s certainly ‘good’, but not ‘great'; ‘decent’, but not ‘race winning’. Depending on how you look at things, the team could be anything from second fastest to fifth fastest out there. Both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen had rather mundane races in Australia as neither driver made any notable overtakes. Raikkonen made no secret of his displeasure, saying that a big step forward was required, but he had faith in the team. Alonso inherited P4 after Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification, but didn’t really do much in the race itself. Then again, when did Ferrari last have a really strong GP MALESIA F1/2014start to a season at round one?

In qualifying, the team was once again ‘good’, but by no means spectacular. Alonso was unfortunate not to start in the top three as Rosberg was the only driver to improve with his final effort, whilst Raikkonen said that he was disappointed to finish down in sixth place. Given the team’s qualifying form over the past few years, it was a valiant effort especially with Red Bull and Mercedes being ahead in terms of pace. On Friday, Ferrari did impress with its long-run pace, meaning that if it is a dry affair on Sunday, the team should be looking to finish as ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes.

WHERE WERE WILLIAMS?

This was a point raised by my colleague Trent Price earlier this week. There is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ situation at Williams – the car isn’t great in the wet. When we spoke before he headed to Malaysia, Trent said that he would chase up whether or not steps had been made to aid the team’s dry pace.

Williams has saved him the job, though, as both Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa dropped out rather anonymously in Q2. The Finn was also hit with a rather harsh grid penalty for blocking Daniel Ricciardo (Dan’s comment about “having a word” was rather sweet, though), and will start from P18 tomorrow.

So will Jekyll or Hyde turn up on Sunday? That depends on the weather, frankly. Should it remain dry though, both drivers should be aiming to score points and not lose more of the advantage that the team clearly has over its midfield rivals.

The stage is set for a thrilling Malaysian Grand Prix. For once, Vettel is the underdog – and I wouldn’t begrudge him this victory in the slightest.

Images courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1 Team and Scuderia Ferrari.

Luke Smith

Luke Smith

Luke Smith is the Editor-in-Chief and Founder of Richland F1. Having started the website in March 2012, he has gone on to become one of the youngest members of the Formula 1 paddock after joining American broadcaster NBC Sports at the beginning of the 2013 season. Luke now works as the network's lead F1 writer, supporting the TV coverage on nbcsports.com. Luke's work has also been featured on NBC News, Yahoo! Sports, Driven Magazine and the Bahrain Mirror, and he has also appeared on CNBC's TV series "One Second in F1 Racing".