Chinese Grand Prix: Saturday Analysis

Strategy was always set to dictate Qualifying and while Q3 seemed to be anything but a spectacle for a time, the variation in tyre choice made for a captivating end to the Qualifying hour. Lewis Hamilton increased in confidence throughout the session, finishing with an inch perfect lap to take his first pole for Mercedes. Teammate Nico Rosberg threatened to make it a Mercedes front row lockout, before a mistake in the final corner curtailed his aspirations. He starts P4.

FP3

Ferrari once again displayed fantastic speed on the option tyres, taking a 1-2 at the top of the FP3 timesheet, with Fernando Alonso leading the way. The Ferrari team sent a clear message to the paddock, showing that they would play a key role in the fight for pole position. Meanwhile, Mercedes led the way early on in the session, when teams opted for medium compound running. This pace on the primes, suggests that Mercedes will perform well during the race, where the medium compound will be used for the majority. 
Sergio Perez topped proceedings after the first 15 minutes, yet soon plummeted as rivals began to show their hands. The Mexican has since announced his low levels of confidence with the MP4-28 due to the inconsistencies that plague the balance. This public bashing of the car will surly not be popular in a team which run as clinically and secretively as possible. 
Rosberg suffered a significant issue late on. While he was top of the timesheet at the time, the Mercedes man reported “something is broken with the springs”. He headed back to the pits, ending his FP3 running prematurely. Rosberg missed out on qualifying simulation; a fact which hampered his lap later in Q3. Meanwhile, his teammate seized the initiative and went fastest. 
However, the top of the timesheet was all change when the drivers went out for some qualifying simulation on the soft compound. Ferrari looked strong on the options yesterday, and reinforced this fact. Massa initially overturned Hamilton’s advantage to go fastest, before being pipped to P1 by teammate Alonso, who finished the session as fastest. 
FP3 Timesheet
1 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:35.391
2 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:36.013 0.622
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:36.065 0.674
4 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:36.286 0.895
5 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.420 1.029
6 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:36.549 1.158
7 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:36.605 1.214
8 Jenson Button McLaren 1:36.693 1.302
9 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:36.777 1.386
10 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:36.853 1.462
11 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:37.072 1.681
12 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:37.205 1.814
13 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:37.300 1.909
14 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:37.349 1.958
15 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:37.457 2.066
16 Paul di Resta Force India 1:37.487 2.096
17 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:37.740 2.349
18 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:37.813 2.422
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:38.496 3.105
20 Charles Pic Caterham 1:38.821 3.430
21 Max Chilton Marussia 1:39.627 4.236
22 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:39.652 4.261   

Qualifying Analysis

With many people predicting a Mercedes and Ferrari duel to determine pole, it seems unsurprising that Lewis Hamilton claimed the pole position. However, throughout qualifying we were served some excellent action, surprises and strategic calls. While Q3 started slowly, it reached an exciting conclusion as nine cars opted to complete just one, last minute, bid for pole.
Hamilton was ecstatic with his 27th career pole. He had clearly been building up to the performance throughout the weekend, emerging from the shadow of his teammate at the perfect time. Hamilton stated, “Pole position is a great result for us today and to achieve it in my third race for the team is such a good feeling. I had to make sure the radio was off after my engineer told me I had pole because I was so excited! None of us expected this level of performance at this stage of the season and it’s a real bonus.” Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg could only manage P4 on the gird despite setting blistering first and middle sector times. The German wrestled with oversteer through the final corner, losing the vital time. The lap would not have been enough for pole, as Hamilton was clear of the field, but Mercedes could have earned a front row lockout, if Nico had ended the lap cleanly. Nico reflected, “I made a small mistake at the last corner on my lap in Q3 which cost maybe a tenth and a couple of places. But I’m in a good position for the race and we’ve worked a lot on the race performance this weekend so I hope we can gain some places tomorrow.”
0.3 behind Hamilton was Kimi Raikkonen, who emerged from the shadows to earn a front row spot for Lotus; the first since his comeback. It was a fantastic lap from the Finn, yet perhaps not representative of the E21’s pace. Furthermore, the higher track temperature played into their hands. Despite the excellent performance today, Raikkonen is far less optimistic heading into tomorrow’s race. He stated, “This is my best qualifying for the team which is good, but of course you always want to be on pole. It’s been quite a tricky weekend so far and we’ve had a few small issues with setup, but it’s always difficult to get things exactly how you want them and the car seems to be working well now.” Since Kimi appears to be out of position after his excellent efforts, he may play into Mercedes hands. If Hamilton can maintain P1 after turn one, Raikkonen may allow the Brit to break away from the chasing pack. However, it would be dangerous to underestimate the pace of the Lotus. It may be an inconsistent car, but it can be the fastest one if the conditions are within the optimal range.
Tyre strategy was always set to hamper qualifying. The teams involved in the final part of the session were so conscience of the degradation that they remained in the garage until the final 3 minutes, to post just one time. Hulkenberg decided to not post a time whatsoever, while Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button headed out on the prime tyres. Subsequently, they will be on the better tyre at the stat of the race, at the cost of grid positions. Being in the midfield heading into turn one, is always dangerous, but considering the short life of the option tyre, it is a risk they are willing to take. Either Jenson or Sebastian are likely to lead the race when the cars ahead of them make their early stops. Using the option tyre later in the race is preferable as the circuit will have rubbered in. Subsequently, Vettel is confident ahead of tomorrow’s race, despite starting from P9. “We’re obviously on a different strategy to the cars in front, whether that works or not we will see tomorrow, but I’m confident we did the right thing based on the facts we have.” He stated. “It was a different approach to normal in today’s qualifying and it all came down to the last few minutes for everyone; it was very silent and then everyone left in a queue to start the lap at the same time – but not a problem. We have the advantage of choosing the tyres for tomorrow, so we’ll see.”
Meanwhile, Mark Webber’s session ended abruptly during Q2, after a refueling irregularity meant that he could not quite make it back to the pit lane. The Aussie fell to P14 and Christian Horner reported that a computer glitch had resulted in Webber’s car being under-fueled by three kilograms. However, Webber received a further penalty after the session. Since the stewards could not take the required fuel sample from his car, he was demoted to the back of the grid. Webber stated, “It’s very disappointing. Q1 went okay; I was comfortable with the car and we had a good plan for the rest of the session. In Q2 we lost fuel pressure so I had to turn the car off and couldn’t get it back to the pits. I had to stop on the circuit, so qualifying was over before it started really.”
With a number of drivers out of position, tomorrow is set to be a captivating spectacle. Emphasis will inevitably be on tyre degradation and the Mercedes cars will hope that their pace on the medium compound will compensate for a shorter opening stint. Vettel will have a good chance of taking victory if he manages to evade the traffic quickly. Alonso could also challenge from a promising P3. It is certainly difficult to predict, but the grid is set for a classic race tomorrow. Simply unmissable.

Qualifying Results
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1m34.484
2. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1m34.761
3. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1m34.788
4. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1m34.861
5. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1m34.933
6. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1m35.364
7. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1m35.998
8. Jenson Button McLaren 2m05.673
9. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull no time
10. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber no time
11. Paul di Resta Force Indi 1m36.287
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1m36.314
13. Adrian Sutil Force India 1m36.405
14. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1m37.139
15. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1m37.199
16. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1m37.769
17. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1m37.990
18. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1m38.780
19. Max Chilton Marussia 1m39.537
20. Charles Pic Caterham 1m39.614
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1m39.660
22. Mark Webber Red Bull PENALTY

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