Bahrain Grand Prix: Saturday Analysis

While Qualifying in China was full of strategic decisions, Saturday in Bahrain was interesting for all the right reasons. In a highly unpredictable Q3 session, Nico Rosberg stole an unlikely pole position, after suffering from balance issues throughout all three practice sessions. The result is Mercedes first back to back pole positions since Moss and Fangio in 1955. Who says Formula One is predictable.

FP3

Fernando Alonso topped the timesheet in FP3, despite an uncharacteristic excursion at the halfway point of the session. Meanwhile, after yesterday’s impressive display, Raikkonen experienced a quiet session. Could he be sandbagging ahead of Qualifying? 

The first 15 minutes saw few drivers set competitive lap times. the Caterham’s and Marussia’s posted the first times of the day, along with Esteban Gutierrez, who has clearly been optimizing mileage so far this weekend. However, it was not long before the top teams began to show their hand. Mark Weber was the first to hit the front, with a benchmark time of 1:33.875. It is evident that Mark will be using a skinny rear wing this weekend, which he ran in the FP3 session. This is unsurprising considering the fact that Webber will inevitably have to overtake throughout the race as a result of his grid penalty. 
His time at the top did not last long. Romain Grosjean shaved 0.113s off of the Aussie’s time to steal the early advantage. Finally, the Frenchman had emerged from the shadow of his teammate. He was exuding confidence out on track, willing to test the limits. Consequently, he managed to go even faster just five minutes later. 
Many people still predict Vettel to take the Pole Position, and these suggestions were justified when he hit the front. The German managed to lap 0.116s faster than Romain Grosjean. Vettel’s time was one of the last to be posted on the medium compound, as many drivers opted to switch to the hard compound tyre. It was extraordinary to observe how narrow the operating window of the prime tyres is. Drivers struggled to get the  tyres to perform, as track temperature was around three degrees below optimal, despite being a sweltering 37 degrees. 
Fernando Alonso suffered as a result of the comparatively low track temperatures. On the exit of turn two, the Ferrari driver suffered a balance shift, conducing a snap of oversteer. Alonso kept the power down, yet could not control the slide, and he spun into the gravel on the exit of turn three. Lethargically, he was able to drive out of the gravel, before returning to the pit lane. Fortunately, no damage was caused as a result of the incident, but the team had lost a set of the hard compound tyre. 
Once the hard compound runs had been completed, drivers switched back to the option tyres for the final 15 minutes. Rosberg was one of the first drivers to make the change, yet struggled with understeer. Consequently it took him several attempts to post a clean lap time, as the tyres dropped further out of the optimal performance levels with each failed attempt. Hamilton managed to jump up to P2 with his first attempt, while Rosberg finally posted a competitive time, but could only manage P5.
Meanwhile, Marussia were struggling with issues on both cars. Jules Bianchi had a minor fuel vapor fire, but managed to get back out on track to complete one final Qualifying simulation run. Max Chilton was less fortunate, after a water pump failure in the KERS system curtailed his progress in the session. Not the perfect Qualifying preparation for a Marussia team who are set for an intense battle with a resurgent Caterham team this weekend.
In the final moments of the session, Alonso hit the front on his medium tyres, showing that he will threaten for Pole Position. Kimi Raikkonen had experienced a quiet session, posting a time good enough for P3. However, he was soon demoted to P4 as Mark Webber jumped up ahead of him. The Aussie was fastest in the final sector, which was undoubtedly a result of his low downforce settings.
As the checked flag dropped, it was still Alonso who topped the timesheet. However, Lewis Hamilton suffered a frightening blow out on the left rear as he headed down the back straight. Mercedes have been known for their high levels of rear tyre wear however, this blowout on the medium compound suggests that the issue may prove costly in a race scenario. The ferocity of the blowout damaged the wishbone on the left side, however the team should be able to repair the car quickly to ensure that Qualifying preparations are not restricted.

FP3 Timesheet
01 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:33.247 12 laps
02 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:33.348 +0.101 15 laps
03 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:33.380 +0.133 19 laps
04 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:33.446 +0.199 21 laps
05 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:33.455 +0.208 19 laps
06 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:33.464 +0.217 19 laps
07 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:33.596 +0.349 17 laps
08 Paul di Resta Force India 1:33.700 +0.453 15 laps
09 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:33.764 +0.517 19 laps
10 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:33.922 +0.675 17 laps
11 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:33.949 +0.702 20 laps
12 Jenson Button McLaren 1:34.117 +0.870 17 laps
13 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:34.282 +1.035 18 laps
14 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:34.577 +1.330 16 laps
15 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:34.611 +1.364 17 laps
16 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:34.678 +1.431 16 laps
17 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:34.833 +1.586 17 laps
18 Charles Pic Caterham 1:35.816 +2.569 16 laps
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:36.731 +3.484 17 laps
20 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:36.939 +3.692 16 laps
21 Max Chilton Marussia 1:37.630 +4.383 7 laps
22 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:39.592 +6.345 29 laps          

Qualifying

Following Lewis Hamilton’s tribulations in FP3, Mercedes braced themselves for a difficult session. However, the track temperature dropped significantly in Q3, which played into the team’s hands. Nico Rosberg managed to string three excellent sectors together in order to snatch P1. Meanwhile, Lotus failed to deliver on their promising practice pace, with Kimi Raikkonen struggling to P9 before penalty’s helped him up to P8 on the grid. Grosjean’s session was curtailed in Q2 after several mistakes on his flying lap. He starts P11.
Prior to the session, the majority of people expected a close battle between Alonso, Raikkonen and the two Red Bull’s, to take pole position. Mercedes had so far not shown pace which could put them in contention for the front row, especially Rosberg, who complained of understeer issues throughout practice. The conditions in Q3 were perfect for the Mercedes, and Rosberg managed to capitalize. Following the session, Rosberg enthused, “We worked really well last night to improve the car because on Friday we were really struggling and the result is just fantastic.” Mercedes must remain grounded however, as their long run pace leaves a lot to be desired. They have managed a spectacular result today, yet holding onto P1 will be an almost impossible task for the Mercedes man. Rosberg admitted, “It is going to be a tough race with rear degradation. For sure the completion is going to be tough and it’s difficult to say if we have enough pace to win the race but a lot can still happen.” Lewis Hamilton managed to qualify in a respectable P4, however, he will start from P9 following his gearbox change. Considering Mercedes’ evident rear degradation issues, Hamilton will struggle to challenge for the higher points paying positions tomorrow.
Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso line up behind Rosberg, and will be confident heading into tomorrow’s race. Both have displayed excellent race pace throughout the practice sessions and will hope to clear Rosberg quickly. Vettel was pleased to secure a spot on the front row of the grid, stating, “Congratulations to to Nico, he put a very, very strong lap in. It was all his today. Initially when I crossed the line I saw that I didn’t go first, I saw second place on one of the screens, and I didn’t know how much I was missing. The lap was fine, you always find a little bit here and there, but when I got told the gap to P1 to Nico it was clear even with a perfect lap he was unbeatable today. But nevertheless, very happy. I think we managed to save some tyres throughout qualifying, it will be all about tyres and tyre degradation tomorrow, so we will see what happens. But for sure it’s good to start from the front.”
Alonso is the main threat to take tomorrow’s victory. His pace on Friday was electric, despite the Bahrain circuit not necessarily playing to Ferrari’s strengths. It is surprising to see their race pace being so strong, however, the figures do not lie. Fernando is looking stronger and stronger each weekend and is exuding confidence following his dominant victory in China. Moreover, Fernando usually struggles on Saturday and securing P3 will fill him and the team with confidence. Alonso announced, “Very, very happy with third place. Normally in qualifying we are struggling a lot and today the car was very competitive in qualifying so I think this puts us in a very strong position to start tomorrow’s race with the group of the leaders and fight for the podium with a little bit more margin.”
Interestingly, Ferrari decided upon a split strategy in Q3, with Massa setting his fastest time on the hard compound tyre. Consequently, the Brazilian will run longer into the race on his set of tyres, which could be key in the battle for the podium positions. His time was good enough for P6, but penalties for Hamilton and Webber will see him start from P4, making it an all Ferrari second row. Certainly an ominous sight which will fill Vettel’s mirrors. The German will need a perfect start, as the Ferrari’s are infamous for spectacular getaway’s.
Meanwhile, Force India will be pleased with their performance, as both cars managed to secure a place in the top 10. Paul Di Resta complained early on about a lack of radio communication, but managed to complete a tidy lap in Q3, and will line up P5 on the grid, with teammate Adrian Sutil just behind. They have demonstrated excellent pace all weekend, on a circuit where they have experienced relative success in the past. They will hope to capitalize on their pace advantage over a struggling McLaren team tomorrow, as they look to pull away from the Woking squad in the constructors standings.
The mystery of the day was Lotus’ non-existent one lap performance. It could be suggested that the drop in track temperature caused their loss of pace, however, the change in conditions was not as significant as this would suggest. Grosjean and Raikkonen experienced scruffy sessions and the Frenchman could not progress into Q3, while Raikkonen edged into the final part of qualifying, despite being in trouble for a sizable amount of the second session. Consequently, the Finn struggled to P8 on the grid. They will hope that their race pace which shocked everyone on Friday, will aid their progress through the field tomorrow. It has to be noted, that their double podium last season followed a disappointing Saturday. Raikkonen and Grosjean could still be key player’s in tomorrow’s race.
Further down the order, further pressure is mounting on young Esteban Gutierrez. The Mexican dropped out of Qualifying in Q1 once again, in a lonely P18. His lack of pace is becoming a major concern for Sauber, who seem to have selected a young driver who is not ready for Formula One. Gutierrez currently represents a rabbit in the headlights as oppose to a competitive driver. With his penalty, he starts from dead last. It was also a disappointing day at Williams, as Pastor Maldonado dropped out in Q1. Barcelona upgrades cannot come quickly enough for the ailing team.

Qualifying Results
01. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:32.330
02. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:32.584 +0.254
03. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:32.667 +0.337
04. Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:33.207 +0.877
05. Paul di Resta Force India 1:33.235 +0.905
06. Adrian Sutil Force India 1:33.246 +0.916
07. Mark Webber Red Bull 1:33.078 +0.748
08. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:33.327 +0.997
09. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:32.762 +0.432
10. Jenson Button McLaren no time
11. Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:33.762 +1.016
12. Sergio Perez McLaren 1:33.914 +1.168
13. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:33.974 +1.228
14. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:3.976 +1.230
15. Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:34.105 +1.359
16. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:34.284 +1.538
17. Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:34.425 +1.547
18. Charles Pic Caterham 1:35.283 +2.405
19. Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:36.178 +3.300
20. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:36.304 +3.426
21. Max Chilton Marussia 1:36.476 +3.598  
22. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:34.730 +1.852   

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