2015 Chinese Grand Prix: Saturday Analysis

After securing a milestone 40th career pole in Malaysia, Lewis Hamilton has continued his string of Saturday success, by claiming his 41st today. The Brit’s benchmark time came on his first timed lap – a lap time which was nearly eclipsed by a fast-charging Nico Rosberg, who has been growing into the weekend. Ferrari were never a threat in qualifying trim, nor were they expected to be. However, with Sebastian Vettel in P3, they could well take the fight to the Silver Arrows in tomorrow’s race.

Rosberg’s Fightback Begins

Nico Rosberg has endured a slow start to 2015, as an in-form Hamilton has carried significant momentum following his title success in 2014. So far, however, the Chinese GP weekend has been a case of the story of old, in which Hamilton explodes out of the gates in the opening stages, only to be reeled in by knowledge-absorbent Nico Rosberg. It has been fascinating to see the German edge closer to his teammate and in Q3, the four hundredths which ultimately separated them demonstrated that Rosberg can look forward to a battle reminiscent of early-2014 in the race tomorrow.

However, it would not have taken an eagle-eye to determine the mood of the German in the post session FIA press conference. Frustration etched on his face, he seemed more annoyed having come agonisingly close to pole position than he was in Australia and Malaysia, where the margin was significant – a factor also detected by Sky F1’s Damon Hill. Nico is certainly motivated to succeed, but that motivation needs to be translated into positive results against Lewis if he is to halt his momentum.

Whether it is football, golf, tennis – soapbox racing – momentum is a powerful force and despite the narrow margin between the Mercedes men today, another pole position has simply added to Hamilton’s impetus.

Friendly Fire

The Mercedes duo were not the only driver pairing to provide great entertainment today, as a number of inter-team battles provided some intriguing results. Ferrari were quite rightly expecting to lock out the second row today, as they had demonstrated throughout practice to have the measure of Williams and Red Bull. However, Williams notoriously flatter to deceive on a Friday and in Qualifying, they reasserted themselves as the third strongest squad. Massa out-qualifying Bottas was an unexpected outcome, given the fact that Felipe lost half of his FP2 programme.

Both out-qualified Kimi Raikkonen, who failed to live up to the billing in the final part of the session. After Ferrari ran a scrubbed set of option tyres for their opening run, extra pressure was placed on the final lap of the day. Ultimately, balance issues saw Kimi fight his car throughout the lap – balance issues which ultimately demoted him from a comfortable P4 to P6.

All is not lost for the Finn and his sublime race pace demonstrated on Friday has not disappeared, but he now faces the task of negotiating two Williams’. Let’s not forget, it was Felipe Massa who kept Sebastian Vettel from showing his true race pace in Australia, so the situation is certainly not idea for Raikkonen. Not to mention the fact that he now finds himself in what has been dubbed “the carbon fibre zone” for the opening lap.

Elsewhere, and perhaps a result which has slipped under the radar is at Force India. Sergio Perez may have posted the slowest time in Q2, but teammate Nico Hulkenberg did not even venture out for the second act after being eliminated in Q1. The German has been consistently faster than Checo so far this season, with the former being particularly critical of his team’s winter efforts in recent days. For a driver who has been so negative in the opening rounds of the season, both on and off track, such a positive result was a welcome one.

Sauber Success

Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson have delivered top ten performances today, as Sauber take my team of the day award for finishing in P9 and P10. This was the first time both Sauber’s have reached Q3 since the US Grand Prix in 2013, when Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez managed the feat.

Sauber’s excellent start to this campaign is not only testament to the Hinwil squad, but also a clear sign of how effective the winter was for Ferrari’s powertrain department. As I have alluded to before, Sauber have visibly opted for a safer design in the C34, with decidedly more agricultural shapes compared with the likes of Toro Rosso who have adopted for a more aggressive approach. However, this has clearly been counterbalanced and optimised by an excellent powertrain.

FP3 Timesheet

1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:37.615
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 0.226
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.698
4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 0.897
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1.405
6 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1.491
7 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1.498
8 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1.628
9 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1.659
10 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1.790
11 Felipe Massa Williams 1.795
12 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1.898
13 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1.944
14 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1.976
15 Jenson Button McLaren 2.079
16 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 2.151
17 Sergio Perez Force India 2.166
18 Will Stevens Manor 5.313
19 Roberto Merhi Manor 7.341
20 Fernando Alonso McLaren

Qualifying

1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:35.782
2 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 0.042
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.905
4 Felipe Massa Williams 1.172
5 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1.361
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1.450
7 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1.758
8 Romain Grosjean Lotus 2.123
9 Felipe Nasr Sauber 2.285
10 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 2.376
11 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:38.134
12 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1:38.209
13 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1:38.393
14 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:38.538
15 Sergio Perez Force India 1:39.290
16 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:39.216
17 Jenson Button McLaren 1:39.276
18 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:39.280
19 Will Stevens Manor 1:42.091
20 Roberto Merhi Manor 1:42.842

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