Prior to today, it would have taken a brave man to bet against Sebastian Vettel for Pole Position at Hungary. His performance on Friday was seemingly invincible, yet his rivals returned to form today, as Mercedes finally managed to understand the new Pirelli construction, paving the way for Lewis Hamilton to record a third successive Pole. The Brit, who now draws level with the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in terms of career poles, snatched P1 away from Sebastian Vettel in the dying moments of the session, while Nico Rosberg completed the Mercedes resurgence to qualify a respectable P4.
After yesterday’s Red Bull dominance, Romain Grosjean and Lotus have stated their claim for Pole Position, after the Frenchman impressively topped the FP3 timesheet, with an equally optimistic Fernando Alonso finishing in P2. However, Grosjean also posted admirable times on the medium compound tyre during the opening stints of the session, suggesting that Lotus will proceed into Q2 without needing to use the soft option. Meanwhile, Ferrari’s lackluster early pace suggests that the option tyre will be needed early in the qualifying hour for them.
FP3 saw a slight rise in temperatures compared to yesterday, with air temperature reaching 31 degrees and track temperature at 46 degrees. Despite the intense heat, it soon emerged that drivers were only finding the optimum tyre temperature on the medium compound, two laps into the run. This was only the case during the shorter stints, as Charles Pic engineer confirmed that his rear tyres were “on the limit” early during a longer run.
Teams did not follow identical paths during the medium compound performance evaluation, as some opted to complete heavier stints on the tyre, while others examined the effects of a lighter fuel load. Consequently, the timesheet for much of the session was deceiving. However, it looked as though Mercedes had recovered some of their short run performance, as Lewis Hamilton was the fastest on the medium compound, with Rosberg in P3.
The final ten minutes of the session was all about qualifying simulation, with drivers making the switch to the soft compound tyre. Alonso was the first to post a time on the option tyre, which eventually slipped to P2 after Romain Grosjean posted an impressive 1:20.730. Meanwhile, the McLaren’s posted highly competitive times, with Sergio Perez finishing P3. However, the Mexican slipped from hero to zero in the final minutes of the session as he dipped his left rear tyre on the grass on entry to Turn 11. He consequently slid off of the track, colliding with the barriers. The team now have a race against time to examine the car, completing close examination of the drive-shaft which may have damaged the gearbox in the accident. Hopefully, the internal damage to Perez’s McLaren is minimal, as the team could mount a real challenge in Q3 for the first time this season.
Among the drivers who had a difficult session was Kimi Raikkonen. While his teammate topped the timesheet, Kimi struggled with the balance of the car, particularly during the short runs. His soft tyre run at the end of the session was disappointing and he could only manage P11. Meanwhile, Esteban Gutierrez may have to contend with another Q1 exit, as the Mexican spent the entire session in the garage after a gremlin was spotted in the engine, which subsequently had to be changed. Elsewhere, Max Chilton suffered an embarrassing blunder as he reported an engine issue while on track. Miraculously, the car recovered, as Chilton announced to the team that he had pushed the pit lane speed limiter rather than the KERS button, which prompted a loss of power.
Lewis Hamilton’s 30th career pole was certainly an unlikely one. Mercedes had admitted to struggles on the latest incarnation of Pirelli construction, most notably in synchronizing front and rear temperature. However, Hamilton came to terms with the problems at the right time, pulling off a stunning lap at the end of Q3. His shock was evident on the radio; after being told he was P1, Hamilton exclaimed, “Is that Pole”, to which “we’re as surprised as you are” was the reply.
However, Mercedes are not about to get ahead of themselves, especially since Sebastian Vettel lines up alongside them with a far superior race car underneath him. “It is going to be tough tomorrow. Our long runs on Friday didn’t feel like a disaster, but it definitely wasn’t as good as the guys sitting next to me,” acknowledged Hamilton in reference to Red Bull and Lotus’s speed. “I was just saying to Sebastian, we’ve obviously got a good car and good pace, so it’s just a shame about the tyre issues else we would be able to compete in the race. We’ll do the best we can and try to hold on to Sebastian for as long as we can. We’ve got a steep hill to climb with these tyres and if we did win it would be a miracle. I still feel the win is a while off.”
While he was disappointed not to claim Pole, Sebastian Vettel will have few concerns heading into tomorrows race. He is still the red hot favorite to take the victory, as Red Bull were in a league of their own throughout the long runs on Friday, with both Vettel and Webber consistently circulating in the 1:26’s. However, Mark Webber may not be able to show his true race pace tomorrow, as the Aussie starts from P10 on the grid. Electrical issues effected upshifts, while the KERS also failed mid-way through the Q2 session.
A disgruntled Mark Webber scraped through to the final part of Qualifying, yet the team made the strategic call to abort the Q3 plans, as it was unlikely that Webber would achieve higher than P10. “That was a massively disappointing qualifying session,” he said. “Obviously we had a lot of issues with the car and we left a lot of lap time in the garage, with items which weren’t working on the car at their optimum. I was happy with how I drove, but it doesn’t count in qualifying when you need everything at the absolute limit. Instead of challenging for the front row, we were challenging for the last row of Q3. We’re out of position with a car that is capable of much more, but I didn’t have the car today to challenge for the results I thought we could get.” On a circuit which is difficult to overtake, Webber will be relying on a good start tomorrow, followed by a consistent a prolonged opening stint. Considering the far superior pace of the Red Bull, solid points are still a strong possibility for Mark yet today’s issues have significantly damaged his aspirations.
For Romain Grosjean, his chances of securing his first victory have been curtailed despite the Frenchman qualifying in P3. During scrutiniring, Romain’s car failed a floor deflection test, where the floor has supposedly exceeded the 5mm limit of travel under heavy load. Currently, the stewards are deliberating punishments, yet it is anticipated that Romain will fall to the back of the grid, excluded from the qualifying result.
Meanwhile, Jenson Button’s day did not live up to expectations. Despite both McLaren’s showing signs of pace in all three practice sessions, the Brit qualified just P13 after complaining of understeer. However, Jenson was still focusing on the positives of the weekend so far; “When we run fresh rubber, I can’t get enough front-end in the car – we’re maxed out – so I’m struggling. In a way, that’s a positive – because it means we’ve introduced downforce to the rear of the car.”
Mystery of the day came courtesy of Paul Di Resta, as the Brit languished in P18. However, on this occasion the team were not guilty of any qualifying miscalculations; instead, a bemused Paul simply lacked pace on the option tyre. “A tough session and I am a bit confused as to why we struggled so much on the soft tyre,” he acknowledged. “Throughout all the sessions we’ve looked more competitive on the softs, but in Q1 they just didn’t switch on. We’ve given ourselves a lot of work to do tomorrow, but we will go away and come back refreshed and ready to fight.”
The biggest factor in tomorrow’s race will be the heat. Temperatures could reach 40 degrees, meaning that all teams will step into a world of unknowns. Such temperatures would mark the hottest race since the 2009 regulations overhaul and could disrupt the pecking order significantly. Moreover, the heat will surly benefit both Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen who start P4 and P5 respectively, (assuming Grosjean is excluded from the qualifying result). Can they take the fight to Sebastian Vettel?
UPDATE: Romain Grosjean escaped without a penalty, after it was revealed to the stewards that his floor was damaged after a heavy contact with a kerb, which subsequently caused the increased travel. He will start P3.