Wet qualifying sessions have become something of a norm for Formula One fans recently, as a shower of rain in Shanghai made it three wet sessions out of four in 2014. Wet weather meant one thing, a chance for Lewis Hamilton to shine, and that he did, the 2008 champion collecting his third pole of the campaign, making history in the process. Dan Paddock runs you through the talking points from qualifying for the Chinese Grand Prix.
Is Nico Rosberg feeling the pressure?
The intra-team battle between the two Mercedes drivers in Bahrain was a delight to behold, and was the centre piece to what many have called the best F1 race in years. But one must wonder, looking at the evidence of today’s qualifying session, what the outcome of that on-track fight has done to the psyche of the man who was second that day, Nico Rosberg.
Prior to the Bahrain Grand Prix the son of the 1982 world champion had come in for some stick for the way he had seemingly rolled over to the dominance of Lewis Hamilton in Malaysia. His response on Saturday in Sakhir was excellent, and it was in fact Lewis Hamilton who slipped up, handing his team-mate pole.
To then lose such an intense fight come race day, against the very man he had toppled during qualifying, despite the chances in the final stint standing seemingly in his favour, must have been quite the emotional blow.
The mind of a racing driver is key, confidence, or lack thereof can decide not only race wins, but entire titles.
And during qualifying, as Nico Rosberg not only blew one chance, with a lock-up, but a second with a spin out of the final corner, you had to ask yourself, had the manner of his defeat in Bahrain got to him? Rosberg, always considered as calculated and cool, in contrast to the outright raw aggression of his team-mate, was anything but in Q3.
The German blamed an error with his dashboard delta time for his failure to better fourth on the grid. This issue aside, Lewis Hamilton always seemed to have Rosberg pegged during the hour-long session, this despite the 2008 champion’s disrupted weekend to that point.
Rosberg’s focus must be to take the fight to Hamilton on Sunday, and win. Another defeat to his team-mate, while not disastrous in terms of points, will only serve to further underline his confidence.
First things first though, Rosberg has the challenge of clearing the Red Bull pair of Ricciardo and Vettel.
Lewis Hamilton rises to the occasion
Onwards now to the other Mercedes man who we have already touched on briefly, Lewis Hamilton, who was simply peerless during qualifying. Mercedes’ utter dominance in the dry is plain for everyone to see, but there remain question marks over the team’s advantage in the wet. Or, at least there were.
Hamilton was six tenths faster than an excellent Daniel Ricciardo, who was himself half a second up on his team-mate. Rosberg was next up, and while he would have likely been closer if not for his last lap mistake, the gap was a huge 1.2 seconds. What was in fact most telling was that the Williams pairing of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas in sixth and seventh were the best part off two and a half seconds off the 2008 champion’s best lap. A lap that he later admitted he could have bettered. That is quite remarkable.
Aside from the manner in which Hamilton took pole, what was also notable was that it was the 34th pole position of his career, which puts him fourth in the all-time records, behind only Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, and Sebastian Vettel. And importantly sees him move ahead of Jim Clark, who until today had been the British driver with the most pole positions to his name. After 46 years, this record now belongs to Hamilton.
On Sunday, Hamilton can make it three race wins on the bounce, a first in his career. The 2008 champion is arguably in the form of his life right now. You would have to be foolish to count against him achieving this feat.
Ricciardo vs. Vettel – Round Four
While the rather public team battle continues at Mercedes, a similar battle of its own is brewing up at Red Bull, as Daniel Ricciardo once again out qualified Sebastian Vettel, the third time the Australian has done so this season.
When Ricciardo was unveiled as Vettel’s new team-mate back at the tail end of last year, we already knew that the Australian was quite a dab hand when it came to qualifying. In fact, Ricciardo’s ability to take the Toro Rosso to heights undeserved of its quality probably played a large part in Red Bull’s decision to promote him to the senior team.
However, if you had suggested that come the Chinese Grand Prix, four races into the 2014 season, Ricciardo would have out qualified his team-mate thee time-out of four, you’d have received some marked glances. This is Sebastian Vettel we are talking about, a man who at the age of just 26-years-old sits third on the all-time lists of pole positions.
Ricciardo’s start to life at Red Bull has been excellent, and while in light of the disappointment of his exclusion in Australia, many thought he would stumble, the 24-year-old has responded brilliantly.
On the surface it is all still smiles at the defending champions, especially on Ricciardo’s side of the garage, but if the trend continues to run in Daniel’s favour expect things to quickly unravel. With the Mercedes cars expected to waltz into the distance on race day, the battle between the two Red Bull’s for the final podium spot could be intriguing to watch on Sunday.
Williams find their wet weather form
Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas were 15th and 17th on the grid here in China last year for Williams. It is a sign of just how much belief and positivity is currently flowing around the Grove-based outfit that just sixth and seventh on the grid for Sunday’s race is somewhat underwhelming.
Consider that the team has so far struggled for pace in the wet weather that has so far blighted three of the four qualifying sessions held this year, and sixth and seventh on the grid suddenly does not seem so bad for Felipe Massa and Bottas.
With a car that is potentially the third fastest in the dry, and with their wet weather hangover seemingly conquered, expect to see the Williams drivers in the mix for decent points come Sunday.
Contrasting fortunes at Ferrari and Force India
Talking of team-mates, Fernando Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg both experienced vastly more profitable sessions than that of Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez.
Alonso, always there or there about will start fifth, in somewhat comical fashion for what will be a record time, not an award the Spaniard will be proud of. Raikkonen meanwhile got the chop in Q2, having never looked likely to progress. The Finn complained of a gearbox issue, but that aside, it is hard to argue that it has been a less than underwhelming start to his return to the Scuderia.
Hulkenberg, who was somewhat surprisingly outclassed by his team-mate Sergio Perez in Bahrain, was back on form come qualifying, and will start alongside Alonso come race day. Perez, dropped out in Q2, just 16th fastest overall. The Mexican will have to go some way to repeating his excellent drive to the podium in Bahrain.
Romain Grosjean gives Lotus something to smile about
As a final aside, Romain Grosjean deserves an honourable mention for his sterling effort to haul the Lotus E22 into the final part of qualifying for the first time this year. While 10th and slowest in Q3 was the best that the Frenchman could muster having progressed, it is a positive note to see both Grosjean’s and the Lotus team’s perseverance and hard work rewarded, if only mildly.
With the Frenchman assuring the media that the financial situation at Lotus is now in a much stronger manner of health, expect to see Lotus make steep inroads into the points over the coming races. With a touch of luck, the Frenchman could even steal a point come Sunday.
Pastor Maldonado can only dream of a Q3 appearance and a chance of points, as the Venezuelan’s torrid weekend so far – a bizarre off and a crash into the pit-entry on Friday – was capped off on Saturday with a power unit issue in FP3 that caused him to miss qualifying.
Maldonado, who has been painted as something of a pantomime villain in recent weeks, after his accident with Esteban Gutierrez in Bahrain, will start 22nd and last on the grid, after the stewards admitted him to start despite having failed to set a time in qualifying. Arguably, after his cameo in Bahrain, and his troubles staying on the road on Friday, starting at the back of the grid might be the safest place for Pastor.
Images courtesy of Lotus F1 Team, Pirelli Media and Williams F1 Team