Qualifying analysis: Mercedes on the money, finally?
A Mercedes pole position may not be the surprise result from qualifying today, but should one of the two Silver Arrows take the chequered flag tomorrow, it would certainly be unexpected. Since 1996, the Spanish Grand Prix has been won by a driver starting on the front row; tomorrow’s race may not break this tradition.
Yes, Mercedes are finally in a position to win a grand prix in 2013. The Chinese and Bahrain Grands Prix saw the German marque take pole and then freefall through the field, yet the team appears to be in a better position for tomorrow’s race at the Circuit de Catalunya. Their long-run pace in FP3 was good; slower than Ferrari, yes, but certainly good enough to take the win should they build upon this. It was a Silver Arrow which topped all three qualifying sessions, proving the raw pace of the W04. The dynamic that makes a win more likely here than it did in Bahrain is the front-row lockout. Last time out, Rosberg was susceptible to pressure from Vettel and Alonso early on. Now though, whichever Mercedes is leading into turn one should have a rear gunner to protect him – it is a time like this where Rosberg saying “I will remember this” in Malaysia could come back to haunt Ross Brawn and Lewis Hamilton. The only factor working against Mercedes is the same one which cost them so dearly in Bahrain: rear tyre wear. Ferrari and Lotus have clearly played a strategic game in qualifying, making it all the more difficult for Mercedes should they suffer on their Pirellis. On face value though, this could be Mercedes’ chance to break their duck in 2013; to not win from a 1-2 finish is a failure for any team.
That’s a feat Red Bull have a habit of avoiding. Relying one of their drivers starts on the front row, they usually go on to take the win. Sebastian Vettel is well placed in third, and if Mercedes do fall off early on, he will be best placed to pick up the pieces. The Red Bull has a good balance of one-lap pace and race pace, so the defending world champion is likely to be in the running for the win. Battling with him will be Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, both of whom will be disappointed not to have made the front row. Vettel, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Button and Maldonado have all won this race once, and the first three of this group are most likely to double their tallies, matching Raikkonen’s total. Therefore, this is not an unknown track, and the amount of testing means that every driver should hit every apex and know their lines. Perhaps this is part of the reason for the lack of overtaking around the Circuit de Catalunya?
So, tyres will dictate a lot. Ferrari and Lotus both know that they can win this race judging by their race pace and lack of heavy degradation, although one will question Alonso’s chances after a disappointing qualifying. He has always done well in Spain, but you would be brave to bet on him winning this year as he lacked that extra something Mercedes did have: pace in sector three. Judging their final Q3 times, you can see that there is very little separating the teams in S1 and S2, but the 0.5s gap between Rosberg and Alonso in S3 is evidence of just how good the Mercedes is come the end of the lap. So, could Mercedes open up a big enough gap that the tyre wear will be accounted for, or will the troublesome Pirelli tyres see them lose even more time through the tight final sector? All will be revealed tomorrow.
What will concern Mercedes if they cannot deliver tomorrow is whether they will at any point this season. Three poles from five races is impressive, but zero wins from that total is very worrying. The final sector is where the advantage lies for the German team, so we can expect a Mercedes pole in Monaco next time out, also (in theory), but should they fail to win either race, it would certainly raise a few questions. There are no points for pole, and this weekend’s race may present Mercedes best chance to win a race before the other teams catch up in terms of one-lap pace.
Further back, Toro Rosso can be delighted with its form. Not making Q3 may not be something to shout about, but they oh so nearly did make it through. Ricciardo and Vergne will be keeping half an eye on Mark Webber’s seat, knowing that should this upward trend continue, one of them could be partnering Vettel next season. Similarly impressive was Force India’s pace, knowing that their race pace is what has made them so good this season; starting P10 and P13 is by no means a bad thing then.
The more things change, the more they stay the same: Williams, Sauber and McLaren can subscribe to this. McLaren, it must be said, seem to have a spring in their step. Button’s Q2 elimination was a worry, but Perez showed strong pace, and a double-points score will be the target for them tomorrow. Sauber seem to be in all kinds of trouble, but Hulkenberg has already proven that he can go deep into races, whilst Williams will also be keen on Valtteri Bottas continuing his feisty race form. Undoubtedly though, all three teams have work to do.
In the basement, Marussia and Caterham have never been closer. Just 0.018 seconds separated Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde, but it is the Dutchman who has benefitted from Gutierrez’s penalty to line up P18 tomorrow. Chilton and Pic were also in close company, meaning that we may have a four-way fight at the back instead of the two sets of two that has become rather stale. A healthy battle is ensuing between the two teams, which can only be a good thing.
Four teams fighting at the front, five in the middle, and two at the back. Simple, right? Nothing ever is in Formula One.
Images courtesy of Octane Photographic.
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 and in Driven Magazine, and he has also appeared on CNBC's TV series "One Second in F1 Racing".