Indian Grand Prix: Saturday Analysis

Predictable, inevitable, sublime – so many adjectives can be used to describe Sebastian Vettel’s dominant Pole Position in New Delhi today. The German was at his usual best, as he controlled proceedings at the head of the timesheet. He was even able to abandon his final run as his initial time of a 1:24.119 was good enough to claim top spot from the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who trailed by 0.7s. However, it is Vettel’s teammate who could provide the greatest threat to the German tomorrow. Mark Webber set his Q3 time on the medium tyre, while still managing to line up a highly commendable P4. No one has ever won a race starting on the prime compound and while this is unlikely to change tomorrow, it will certainly provide intrigue to the race.
 

FP3

Sebastian Vettel secured the practice hat-trick in FP3, topping the timesheet once again from teammate Mark Webber, who finished 0.5s away from his German teammate. In fact, Vettel’s personal best effort on the option tyre was 0.7s clear of any non-Red Bull machinery. 
Teams suffered a scheduling dilemma throughout the session, which was condensed into a 40 minute period, due to a 20 minute delay to the start of FP3. This was due to the density of smog, which increased significantly over-night, meant that emergency helicopters could not take off in the event of an accident. However, the FIA eventually deemed conditions safe and the green light signified the start of the final practice session.
While the session was truncated, it still brought significant talking points to the table. Red Bull tried an alternative schedule to most teams as they looked to evaluated their long run performance on the soft tyre, following yesterday’s concerns. What is evident now is that the tyres could be what beats Red Bull this weekend, as they are still suffering substantial drop-off in lap times, relatively early into the option stint. While a initial graining phase came very early on in Sebastian’s run in particular, this graining seemed to level out as the stint wore on – Vettel maintained pace within the 1:34’s across a six lap period. The question is, will this be enough to satisfy the team’s strategists, or will Red Bull go radical on strategy? A medium tyre Q3 run is unlikely, but not out of the question.
Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean once again impressed but could only manage P5 in the Lotus. A brief altercation with Lewis Hamilton was a result of the Frenchman running off the circuit at Turn 10, before rejoining on the racing line and blocking Hamilton on his soft tyre qualifying simulation. This also provides explanation for Hamilton’s lonely P10 on the timesheet, as it came during his second timed lap.   

Also worth a notable mention was Nico Hulkenberg. After Sauber identified that their performance on the medium compound tyre was far better than on the soft tyre yesterday, the team seemed to have corrected some of the balance issues which promoted these concerns. This is reflected by Hulkenberg’s impressive P4 on the timesheet – the German finished just 0.9s away from the lead Red Bull. Di Resta also displayed good pace, finishing in a highly respectable P7. Both drivers will hope to take this performance into qualifying.

FP3 Timesheet
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:25.332 16 laps
02 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:25.892 +0.560 14 laps
03 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:26.105 +0.773 19 laps
04 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:26.306 +0.974 17 laps
05 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:26.350 +1.018 16 laps
06 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:26.435 +1.103 20 laps
07 Paul di Resta Force India 1:26.438 +1.106 15 laps
08 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:26.441 +1.109 19 laps
09 Jenson Button McLaren 1:26.489 +1.157 15 laps
10 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:26.557 +1.225 17 laps
11 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:26.635 +1.303 14 laps
12 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:26.641 +1.309 13 laps
13 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:26.737 +1.405 13 laps
14 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:26.847 +1.515 17 laps
15 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:26.876 +1.544 17 laps
16 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:26.883 +1.551 15 laps
17 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:27.259 +1.927 18 laps
18 Charles Pic Caterham 1:27.941 +2.609 18 laps
19 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:28.019 +2.687 15 laps
20 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:28.498 +3.166 16 laps
21 Max Chilton Marussia 1:29.094 +3.762 11 laps
22 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:29.169 +3.837 13 laps

Qualifying Analysis

Business as usual for Sebastian Vettel, as the German cruised to a comfortable Pole Position. It looked all too easy for Sebastian. The German managed to emerge from Q1 with his full compliment of option tyres which took pressure off of his Q3 programme, which he demonstrated to his clinical best. It now seems even more likely than ever before that Vettel will become a four time World Champion tomorrow – even if his boss denies all knowledge of the now customary celebratory t-shirts.
“We have been getting a lot of questions about the Championship this weekend,” Vettel stated. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve done in the past, just focusing on every single step – we won’t change that for tomorrow, or the next couple of races. We’ve worked hard to get here and tomorrow is a long race. With the strategy, I think it’s always tricky do the right thing, but we have a good package so we should be in good shape.” Strategy could play a major role in tomorrow’s race. With Webber starting from a strong P4 on the better race tyre, the pair could well meet each other on track in the middle phase of the race. Sebastian is likely to have to ditch his soft tyres around lap seven, while Mark could continue until around lap 30 according to Pirelli’s estimates. The likelihood is that the pair may cross paths as this phase of the race develops, which could be a very interesting tussle indeed.
Meanwhile, Mercedes experienced a surprisingly good Saturday, as Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will line up behind Vettel. Mercedes displayed pace which was yet to be seen throughout the weekend – the result certainly surprised Hamilton. He stated, “we have been pushing as hard as we can and we really want to get a good result this weekend and strategy is going to play a huge part. I was a little bit surprised to be where we are, but generally bit-by-bit we have adjusted the set up and got a reasonable balance and hopefully we can push together to try and stay ahead of the rest.” 
Romain Grosjean’s early departure from qualifying no doubt boosted Mercedes’ chances as the Frenchman was knocked out at the Q1 stage. Lotus decided that they could get through the opening session on the prime compound tyre, yet as the track evolved this soon proved to be a dire miscalculation – at this point, it was too late, as Romain was committed to the strategy. Essentially, complacency got the better of a disappointed Lotus team. “We took a gamble once again to try just one run on the prime tyres in Q1,” Romain evaluated, “and although it’s been a successful tactic for us recently it didn’t pay off this time. The times were much tighter than expected and ultimately we made a miscalculation with the cut-off time. It’s easy to look back and think what might have been, but we made the decision together and unfortunately in the end it was the wrong one.” He will have a tough task to battle through tomorrow, yet points are undoubtedly a strong possibility, as the circuit promotes overtaking. 
Further back in the top ten, Felipe Massa once again out-qualified Fernando Alonso, as the Brazilian claimed P5. However, the result was unrepresentative, as Alonso ran on the prime compound tyre in Q3 – Ferrari opted to split strategy in similar fashion to Red Bull. The Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso battle could develop a new chapter in tomorrow’s race as the two are likely to run identical strategies. 
Meanwhile, Nico Hulkenberg managed to convert his excellent FP3 outing into another impressive qualifying position, as the in demand German placed P7 on the timesheet. After showing excellent long run pace on the medium compound tyre during Friday, Nico may be set for another scintillating Sunday. “Overall it was quite a good qualifying. P7 is a good position for tomorrow, and I expect a close battle with the McLaren’s. They chose a different approach by qualifying on the hard tyre, we qualified on the soft, so it will be interesting to see who comes out on top. In the race we have to see how we get on with the soft tyres, as they didn’t look too good in free practice yesterday. Since then we have improved the car, so they should last a bit longer. The long runs on the medium tyre looked good.”
Daniel Ricciardo could also be on for a very positive result in the race, despite not progressing into Q3. The Aussie dropped out of qualifying in P11, yet with the option of opting for a fresh set of medium compound tyres tomorrow, he has the potential to jump both McLaren’s who line up directly ahead of him, (albeit on the same strategy). 
So, tomorrow is poised to be a strategic duel for supremacy, as the midfield is remarkably close. While the champagne is on ice for Sebastian Vettel, the battle for second could prove to be a thrilling fight. 
Qualifying Results
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:24.119 
02 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:24.871 +0.752 
03 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:24.941 +0.822 
04 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:25.047 +0.928 
05 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:25.201 +1.082
06 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus 1:25.248 +1.129 
07 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:25.334 +1.215 
08 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:25.826 +1.707
09 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:26.153 +2.034 
10 Jenson Button McLaren 1:26.487 +2.368 
11 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:25.519 
12 Paul di Resta Force India 1:25.711 
13 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:25.740 
14 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:25.798 
15 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:26.134 
16 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:26.336 
17 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:26.577 
18 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:26.842 
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:26.970 
20 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:27.105
21 Charles Pic Caterham 1:27.487 
22 Max Chilton Marussia 1:28.138
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