During the winter, we all like to speculate in regards to the pecking order, yet ultimately, it is not until qualifying in Melbourne that the true picture is revealed. Fortunately, today was the day when sandbagging came to an end and team’s showed their hands. On queue, Mercedes lit up the timing screens, with Lewis Hamilton comfortably taking pole position, to the tune of six tenths of a second, from title rival Nico Rosberg. The German had an uncharacteristically luke-warm Saturday, but such is the Mercedes advantage, P2 was his reward.
Gapping The Pack
Mercedes are in a league of their own and if there were any doubts prior to today that the Silver Arrows will again fight for the drivers title among themselves, then these have now been quelled. While the W06 appeared vulnerable on the medium compound tyre throughout FP3 and at the start of Q1, they soon hit their stride and on the sticker option rubber, they were imperious.
Pre-eminence confirmed for Mercedes then. The fight for third looks closer than ever though, as Williams and Ferrari have emerged from the chasing pack as the best of the rest. I was hugely impressed with Felipe Massa’s drive to P3 in the final part of qualifying, edging out the Ferrari duo on his final lap, despite a complicated weekend so far. Missing FP2 entirely due to a water leak may have disadvantaged Felipe, but the FW37 and the Brazilian’s experience proved to overwhelm the adversity.
Meanwhile, Valtteri Bottas’ day was hampered by back pain. As Rob Smedley identified after the session, the Finn began complaining of a pain in the “small of his back” during Q2 and this was undoubtedly exacerbated when he met the end of the exit kerb of turn 16 and grappled for control as he hit the notorious bump which sent Michael Schumacher into the wall in 2006. The back pain would also explain mistakes made earlier in the session by the usually unnerved Finn.
The team have confirmed that he has been taken to hospital on account of the gremlin and remains a doubt for tomorrow’s race at the time of writing. In all honesty, I am surprised that similar problems do not occur on a more regular basis, judging by how low the drivers sit in the car. On a bumpy surface such as at Albert Park, underlying weaknesses can be magnified.
What will please Williams is that today was evidently not a perfect outing for them. One of their drivers was short of mileage while the other was suffering in the cockpit, yet both cars compared well with the Ferrari’s. As such, I still tend to think that on a level playing field, Williams have the advantage over the Scuderia for now.
Toro Rosso Challenge Bigger Brother
The biggest shock of the weekend so far has been the lack of performance from Red Bull. After they suffered various technical dramas over the winter and refused to reveal their true pace, they were somewhat of an unknown quantity heading into this weekend. However, expectation was suitably high – after all, the RB11 is an Adrian Newey car.
So far, the team have been a disappointment. The chassis appears to be strong, as it glides through corners in a manner not dissimilar to it’s predecessors, yet drivability seems to be halting the progress of both Ricciardo and Kvyat. Renault may have prioritised reliability this winter over raw pace, but they have fallen further behind Ferrari and Mercedes in the power stakes. It must be a concern for them and while it seems that the name Renault is not now mentioned without Mario Illien’s name cropping up along the way, the powertrain guru certainly has a tough task on his hands.
Sure enough, it was Daniel Ricciardo’s efforts alone which hauled the RB11 into the top ten today and I imagine that the Aussie will be a key factor for the team’s points scoring credentials in the opening rounds. Daniil Kvyat was not at the races today and while his FP3 running was curtailed by a fire in the exhaust, he could only manage P13. To compound their issues, with an inconsistent power delivery, tyre wear could give the pit wall some strategic headaches tomorrow.
Meanwhile, Red Bull appear to be in a fight with Toro Rosso, for the first time since 2008. The STR10 looks fast, with aggressive packaging and a beautifully sculpted monkey seat, and at the hands of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, it is posting impressive times. The latter in particular deserves plaudits for earning a Q3 spot in his debut weekend.
We knew that this weekend would be tough for a misfiring McLaren, but few could have predicted that their pace in qualifying would be quite as lackluster as it turned out. Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen will line up in P17 and P18 on the grid and with Manor not participating in the race tomorrow, this equates to a final row lock-out.
Don’t expect any heroics from McLaren tomorrow. While a final row start has echoes of Watson and Lauda’s charge through the field at Long Beach in 1983, Button and Magnussen will simply aim to see the checkered flag and after only ever stringing 12 laps together during testing, their hopes of finishing the 58 lap race seem slim. However, Honda’s lack of pace today has been cited as a conservative strategy, where engine preservation has been prioritised. As such, their poor Saturday could translate to a more reliable Sunday.
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:26.327
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:26.921
3 Felipe Massa Williams 1:27.718
4 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:27.757
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1:27.790
6 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1:28.087
7 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1:28.329
8 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:28.510
9 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:28.560
10 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:29.480
11 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1:28.800
12 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1:28.868
13 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1:29.070
14 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:29.208
15 Sergio Perez Force India 1:29.209
16 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:31.376
17 Jenson Button McLaren 1:31.422
18 Kevin Magnussen McLaren 1:32.037