Nico Rosberg may have stormed to a surprise pole position in Bahrain this afternoon, but this performance may amount to nothing but a false dawn for Mercedes as Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso put themselves in the running for the win tomorrow.
Qualifying certainly presented a far more enthralling show than last weekend’s session in China, with four drivers opting for two runs in the final session. For Nico Rosberg, the signs of strong one-lap pace were shown during Q2 as he went quickest, so was pole position such a surprise? There is no denying that the Mercedes W04 is competitive over one lap, as was proven in winter testing. However, the race pace is where the team appears to come unstuck. Hamilton dragged the car kicking and screaming to P3 in China, but he did lose out to Alonso and Raikkonen on track, and neither driver has really ‘starred’ so far this season to secure a good result. Pole position is certainly a good start, yet the team could come unstuck on Sunday.
Enter Sebastian Vettel. The defending world champion has certainly showed good pace so far this season, with or without multi 21, as his final few laps in China proved. Mercedes has struggled with rear tyre wear so far this season, meaning that the mantle could now fall to Vettel in P2. The only sign of an out-and-out battle between Red Bull and Ferrari came in Australia, where Alonso edged out Vettel to finish P2. Therefore, it’s hard to say who is truly quickest, but Red Bull are capable of winning tomorrow. If Vettel can make a good start and build up a lead ahead of the first round of stops, he could be celebrating win number two of 2013 tomorrow.
However, Fernando Alonso will also be vying for a repeat of his success in China. When he failed to top Q2, many pundits said “he is saving his tyres”, yet he failed to deliver when it mattered. What Ferrari will be well away of is that they rarely excel in qualifying: they have scored just four pole positions since Alonso joined the team. Therefore, P3 is a great result for the Spaniard, and he will be confident of challenging for his fourth win in Bahrain tomorrow.
Therefore, how does locking out the second row put Ferrari in the best position for the race tomorrow? Felipe Massa’s performance in qualifying was admirable. One tenth slower, and he would be starting down in P8 (as Kimi Raikkonen is). Instead, he has benefitted from the penalties, and will start P4 on the harder tire. The penny drops. Since Pirelli entered the sport in 2011, the trade off has been clear: qualify on options, start higher up, pit earlier; qualify on primes, start lower down, pit later. Massa has thrown this theory out of the window though, and he admitted that he gambled on this working. Could he win for the third time in Bahrain?
If Massa is to challenge Rosberg, Vettel and Alonso, he must make his first stint work. A good start is imperative, although he cannot get ahead of Alonso as this will harm the Spaniard’s strategy. Therefore, it is a case of sticking with Alonso until the first round of stops, then pulling away on the harder tire. Making the tyres last is also important, with the early stop in China ruining his race. Ferrari will need to take risks. Seeing Massa drop 15 seconds behind when moving onto the medium tyres for the final six laps is what they will want, and, as Vettel proved, it could be the right way to go.
With Raikkonen faltering, we are in for a four way fight for the win tomorrow, and you can be sure that the likes of Hamilton and Webber will also be keen on getting in the mix up. Mercedes will win a race this season, but the high rear tyre wear we see in Bahrain means that it won’t be tomorrow unless he manages to match careful driving with searing pace – the trade off theory rears its head once again, and this one is even harder to beat than the qualifying hypothesis.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.