Qualifying for the second US Grand Prix to be held at the stunning COTA saw Red Bull dominate proceedings, with Sebastian Vettel pipping teammate Webber to a well deserved Pole Position. The remarkable fact was that Vettel pulled back a seemingly unassailable deficit of 0.4 seconds after a poor first and second sector to steal P1 with a flawless end to the lap. Best of the rest was Romain Grosjean in P3, while the Mercedes were disappointed and puzzled after an unexpectedly poor session.
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:36.733 14 laps
02 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.936 +0.203 19 laps
Following what was a tricky session for the drivers to read the conditions on track, Vettel acknowledged; “It’s obviously great for the team to have both cars on the front row for tomorrow. It was a tricky session as the wind had picked up quite a bit since this morning; it does influence the behaviour of the car and it’s not that easy, especially in the corners, I wasn’t that happy with my first run in Q3, but I think I had a solid run at the end which was enough.” The track was slow throughout Q1 due to the increased tail wind through sector one which unsettled the cars. Moreover the change in track temperature meant that many teams, including Mercedes, failed to reach the optimum performance range for the tyres. Both Vettel and Webber dealt with these issues very well, which could be an explanation for their ominous advantage.
While P2 was an excellent result for Webber, P1 was there for the taking, especially considering Sebastian’s uncharacteristically poor start to the lap. In the post session press conference, Mark cast a downbeat expression – “Sometimes you’re happy and think you’ve given your best, but today it slipped through the fingers,” he analysed. “Well done to Seb, he put the three sectors together and I put two and a half together. I just dropped it in the last sector and it’s not satisfying when you do that, but I’m still pretty happy with second.” For Mark, qualifying in P2 brings double the anguish at Austin, as the grid has a distinct clean and dirty side, much like that of the Nurburgring or Hungaroring. Webber will need a fantastic launch tomorrow if he is to challenge Sebastian into Turn one.
Meanwhile, best of the rest was Romain Grosjean in P3. The in-form Frenchman has gained in confidence throughout the weekend and could be Red Bull’s biggest threat tomorrow judging by his excellent long run display in FP2. Meanwhile, Nico Hulkenberg once again stole the plaudits with an excellent P4 on the grid. The Sauber driver built on a positive start to the weekend and seems to have pace favourably comparable to the Ferrari’s and even the Mercedes’. “I have felt comfortable with the car over the whole weekend, but it was a different story in Q1 and Q2, as the wind picked up compared to FP3 this morning,” Hulkenberg stated. “It was a tail wind out of turn one and, therefore, also sector one and a bit in sector two. It was tricky, because our car is pretty sensitive to wind. But we made a few changes to it and put it all together in Q3. I think this was the maximum today for us and I am happy with my lap. P4 is a good position to start the race from tomorrow.”
The increased winds caught many drivers out, including Lewis Hamilton. After Mercedes made progress with the balance on both cars following Friday, the Brit could only manage P5 despite many suggesting that he could be an outside shot for the Pole Position. Hamilton acknowledged; “The track was completely different from the final practice session this morning and it was really gusty round the back which affected our car quite a lot. In practice, the car has felt really strong this weekend so I hope we have a good set-up for tomorrow. I need to have a good start in the race and, if we can achieve that, then there is still a lot to play for.” Meanwhile, teammate Rosberg suffered an even more dramatic balance shift which saw him eliminated from qualifying in P14. He will have a busy Sunday afternoon if he wants to salvage a result from what should be a one stop race, meaning that a radical strategy is out of the question.
Further down the top ten, Heikki Kovalainen highlighted his credentials by claiming a well earned P8 on the grid. The Finn has done exactly what Lotus had asked of him as replacement for Kimi Raikkonen and looks set for a positive result tomorrow. Following the session, Heikki stated; “I knew yesterday that we had a good car, but I didn’t really set myself a target for qualifying. I felt that I got pretty much everything I could from it today, as I struggled a bit compared to yesterday with the cooler temperatures this afternoon. Overall, everything’s been positive so far and we got into the top ten. I’m not making any predictions, but we’ve seen that Kimi could do pretty well working forwards from similar grid positions so hopefully tomorrow we can have another good day.”
Meanwhile, it was a dramatic day at Williams. Pastor Maldonado was eliminated from qualifying at the Q1 stage, suggesting that his team sabotaged his car – a accusation which Claire Williams has strongly denied. Valtteri Bottas carried the hopes of the team all the way into Q3, following two impressive outings in Q1 and Q2. The Finn looked as though he could challenge for the best of the rest accolade, however, he made several mistakes in Q3, meaning that both his timed laps were flawed and he could only manage P9. While Valtteri could have achieved more today, tomorrow could be an even stronger day for Williams as their prime compound running on Friday was exceptional. Bottas could and perhaps should achieve his first points in Formula One tomorrow.
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:36.338
02 Mark Webber Red Bull 1:36.441 +0.103
03 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:37.155 +0.817
04 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 1:37.296 +0.958
05 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:37.345 +1.007
06 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1:37.376 +1.038
07 Sergio Perez McLaren 1:37.452 +1.114 21
08 Heikki Kovalainen Lotus 1:37.715 +1.377
09 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:37.836 +1.498
10 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 1:38.034 +1.696
11 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 1:38.131
12 Paul di Resta Force India 1:38.139
13 Jenson Button McLaren 1:38.217
14 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:38.364
15 Felipe Massa Ferrari 1:38.592
16 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 1:38.696
17 Adrian Sutil Force India 1:39.250
18 Pastor Maldonado Williams 1:39.351
19 Giedo van der Garde Caterham 1:40.491
20 Charles Pic Caterham 1:40.760
21 Jules Bianchi Marussia 1:41.071
22 Max Chilton Marussia 1:41.401