On Saturday we saw for the first time this year Mercedes falter in qualifying. Instead, it was a surprise, but most certainly welcome and popular return for both Felipe Massa and Williams to pole position. The Grove-based squad clearly had Stuttgart’s number, which saw Valterri Bottas also miss out on pole to his team-mate by the narrowest of margins. And that is only the start of it… Let RichlandF1’s Alex Goldschmidt run you through the major stories of qualifying.
Jenson Button, speaking earlier this week said that if you make a mistake at the Red Bull Ring you as a driver will clearly be punished. Even before the on-track action got underway, Race Director Charlie Whiting said that any driver, with no exceptions, would have their lap time deleted if abusing the track limits, especially at the exit of turn eight.
Well, on that front, the party had clearly started with Fernando Alonso, Marcus Ericcson, Adrian Sutil and Jules Bianchi being some of the first to suffer that fate in Q1, and it would continue throughout all three sessions of qualifying. Ultimately, it was drivers like Kevin Magnussen, who kept pushing, but respected the track limits that were the most handsomely rewarded, with a good lap time that ensured their progression.
However, aside from the talk of track limits, the biggest news was that Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton failed to deliver in qualifying. Yes, it is Toto Wolff’s home race, as well as a non-executive board member in the form of F1 legend Niki Lauda, but the pressure for the team to deliver after all the success they have had so far this season left them in a position that put them under even more scrutiny. Both drivers had no answer to the efforts of the Williams cars, with Rosberg forced to settle for third, while Hamilton ended up ninth, the Brit having spun out after the rear end snapped his W05 out from under him.
Hamilton is adamant that no one should count him out, especially considering the comeback performances that we have seen from him in previous years. However, some other parties will be considering damage control as their main priority after Saturday.
Take the defending champions Red Bull, who were no where near the pace of the frontrunners. Daniel Ricciardo may have bettered his team-mate Sebastian Vettel on a Saturday for the sixth time this season, but it was a gloomy afternoon for Red Bull. The four-time champion again looked out of sorts with his car, which has single handedly spoilt his title as a one-lap king. Vettel, knocked out in Q2, placed just twelfth after Sergio Perez’s 5-place grid penalty from Montréal dropped the Mexican to 16th.
However, even though he has qualified behind his new team-mate, there have been some impressive drives through the field to score well-needed points from the German in the past, so it would be foolish to rule him out during Sunday’s 70-lap race. Ricciardo seems to be set on simply making the best of a bad situation this weekend, and he is once again doing the job that is expected of him, putting the RB10 into a solid top five slot.
The fact that times in qualifying were so close, especially in regards to the fight for pole, where the top seven drivers were split by just eight tenths of a second, meant that there was nowhere to hide for drivers. Fernando Alonso even went off at the final turn, doing F1’s version of RallyX in his efforts to post a lap time. It showed that even the man generally considered as the best driver in the sport can get it wrong from time to time.
The Spaniard said that getting fourth for Ferrari showed that his ongoing faith with the Maranello team is being rewarded, the Scuderia showing some progress with its recent upgrades. Even Kimi Räikkönen showed a better turn of pace on Saturday, even if both drivers did have their fair share of off-track excursions as they attempted to find the limit of the tricky F14 T.
Another surprise was to see Red Bull outpaced by their sister team, Toro Rosso, which served to particularly highlight the fine form of the young Russian rookie Daniil Kvyat, who has so far shone since his debut. This may be his first season in F1, but the youngster secured a hat trick of pole positions when the FIA Formula 3 European Championship came to the Red Bull Ring last year so he knows the track well, as does McLaren star Kevin Magnussen.
This apparent advantage saw both the rookies have a better outing than their respective teammates Jean-Éric Vergne and Jenson Button, with both ‘old hats’ failing to progress past Q2. Even if the 2009 champion felt that he had been impeded by one of the Lotus cars whilst trying to get the best out of the MP4-29, the Dane seemed to have his team-mate in hand.
Lotus and Sauber’s season woes continued on Saturday. The latter would have had Adrian Sutil in Q2, had the German not had his best lap deleted for having been outside the white line, while Esteban Gutierrez also failed to progress, ending the session behind his team-mate.
Lotus’ Romain Grosjean is coming to the point of the season where he may have to think long and hard about his potential options for the future. Meanwhile, Pastor Maldonado had another, yes, ANOTHER off-track excursion during Q2. Ultimately both cars failed to progress into the final top 10 shootout.
Caterham and Marussia were at their customary place at the tail end of the grid, a sight that both outfits are working hard towards changing in the near future. Marussia currently seem the best bet to accomplish that feat, Jules Bianchi pressuring the two Saubers in qualifying once again.
So, this weekend instead of two Silver Arrows battling for pole, it was a case of two Martini-liveried Williams’ fighting for the top spot. Bottas may have been disappointed on missing out on a potential maiden pole position, but no one could have foreseen that Massa would take his first pole position since the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, with Williams securing its first row lock out since Juan-Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher both qualified on the froth row for the 2003 German Grand Prix, 11 long years ago.
It was a treat for all, and the gesture of both drivers going onto the start/finish straight to thank the fans following qualifying was a gesture of the highest order, especially considering the emotion and joy that Massa conveyed in his words after securing pole position. What a way to see the illusion of Mercedes’ dominance being shattered by the two nicest looking cars on the grid, and by one of the nicest blokes in the paddock.
One final point that was a deciding factor in seeing the times being so close was the fact that the Pirelli soft tyres were not switching on for everybody, as only a handful of drivers decided to use them initially. When Nico Hülkenberg made the switch to the supersofts and dipped into the 1m9s bracket in Q1, everyone followed suit, which could be a case of the track temperature and circuit layout not being in agreement with the material compounds that make up the tyre composition.
Could this be another weekend in which we see degradation play a key part in the strategies that the teams and drivers will have to take into account ahead of tomorrow’s race? The hills are alive with the sound of V6 turbos, but what could happen come race time is anybody’s guess, with the fear that the spectre of unpredictability could once again conjure up some spicy racing a really attracting proposition…
Images courtesy © Octane Photographic