Just when critics limber up to lament another predictable outcome, Formula 1 has the ability to throw a surprise. Lewis Hamilton may have taken four consecutive pole positions, but it was Nico Rosberg’s time to shine, as he dominated qualifying to take top spot by a relatively comfortable margin. The German was imperious today and has achieved the result which has the potential to launch his 2015 title tilt in earnest. Elsewhere, Sebastian Vettel’s third place was courtesy of a typically efficient performance but teammate Kimi Raikkonen failed to deliver and was duly engulfed by his rivals and will start P7. Toro Rosso proved that their practice pace was no fluke, with Sainz sensationally lining up in P5, and will be joined on the third row by his fellow rookie Max Verstappen.
After a few Saturday’s missing-in-action, Nico Rosberg has returned in devastatingly quick fashion, taking his 16th career pole and first of the 2015 campaign.
It has been a typical Rosberg weekend thus far. So often in 2014, I commented on how Nico would grow into a weekend, while it was Lewis who would explode out of the traps on a Friday. This frequently saw a close qualifying duel between the two title protagonists and on numerous occasions, it was the German who emerged as victor.
Topping the FP3 timesheet, amid balance issues for Hamilton, Rosberg entered qualifying with pace to deliver and duly found this performance when it mattered in both Q2 and Q3. In truth, Hamilton never looked comfortable in the car throughout today and as such, the Briton lost a large amount of time compared with his teammate in the first sector, as he struggled to stay on-line through the technical first three corners.
After taking less time out of his medium compound tyres in Q2, it could be said that he will enter the first stint tomorrow with a rubber advantage. However, given that Rosberg starts ahead, this extra tyre life will be of little value if Nico leads out of the first corner and therefore has the high ground regarding the strategy battle. Stopping a lap earlier and gaining the undercut would negate Hamilton’s work from Q2.
Raikkonen Royally Beaten
But where will Ferrari be in the context of this strategic battle? Kimi Raikkonen certainly has plenty of work to do to challenge the leading group, as he will start from P7. While the Finn will enter tomorrow’s race with a set of new medium tyres, which are unquestionably the preferable race tyre, he risks losing substantial ground when stuck in the midfield during the opening exchanges. Given that the Ferrari appears to have a problem following cars when in the turbulent air, Raikkonen will do well to make light work of the traffic.
That is of course, assuming that Ferrari’s race pace is better than their qualifying performance. Vettel always seemed the likely candidate for the left hand seat in the post-session press conference and in the end, the German achieved third with a comfortable margin over Valtteri Bottas in P4. Kimi Raikkonen’s struggles did demonstrate that the SF15-T has not quite hit her stride so far this weekend. On pace alone, the prancing horse is no match for the silver arrow, but should Vettel manage to deploy a dramatically different strategy compared with the front-row occupants, he could become a factor in the latter stages.
Third Row Rosso
It was a Q3 full of surprises and while their inclusion in the shoot-out was anticipated, Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen turned heads when they elevated themselves to fifth and sixth respectively. Toro Rosso have threatened to record a stunning result throughout practice and despite the pressure, their two inexperienced pilots duly delivered.
The feat was even more impressive considering that Sainz carried the weight of a home crowd on his shoulders. Given that Fernando Alonso slid out of the running with a Q2 departure, attention turned to the 20-year-old in Q3. For some drivers, a home race can either advantageously effect performance or simply add another unwanted complication to the pressure knot, but in the case of Carlos, it seems that he relished the opportunity in the spotlight. In addition, the Spaniard had just one lap in the final session. There is no Driver of the Day feature on a Saturday, but I do feel obliged to create one today, just so that Sainz can receive the credit that he deserves.
However, Max Verstappen’s performance merited a similarly notable mention, albeit a tenth adrift of his teammate. The Dutchman is once again doing his best impression of an experienced driver this weekend. The race could see the Toro Rosso’s slip backwards, on account of the fact that a Ferrari and the Williams of Felipe Massa should theoretically have the pace to dispatch the duo tomorrow.
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:26.021
2 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.156
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.201
4 Valtteri Bottas Williams 0.661
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 0.923
6 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1.027
7 Felipe Massa Williams 1.088
8 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1.111
9 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1.292
10 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1.788
11 Jenson Button McLaren 1.917
12 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 2.061
13 Felipe Nasr Sauber 2.075
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren 2.283
15 Romain Grosjean Lotus 2.557
16 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 2.597
17 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 2.767
18 Sergio Perez Force India 2.975
19 Will Stevens Manor 5.104
20 Roberto Merhi Manor 5.728
1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:24.681
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 0.267
3 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 0.777
4 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1.013
5 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1.455
6 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso 1.568
7 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1.733
8 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull 1.948
9 Felipe Massa Williams 2.076
10 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 2.089
11 Romain Grosjean Lotus 1:27.375
12 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 1:27.450
13 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1:27.760
14 Jenson Button McLaren 1:27.854
15 Felipe Nasr Sauber 1:28.005
16 Marcus Ericsson Sauber 1:28.112
17 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1:28.365
18 Sergio Perez Force India 1:28.442
19 Will Stevens Manor 1:31.200
20 Roberto Merhi Manor 1:32.038