Saturday, March 26, 2011

#F1 Vettel storms to Melbourne poll without his magic button

Well, that was an intriguing qualifying session, full of enough of the unexpected to whet your appetite for the season to come.

I dragged myself out of bed in the last few minutes of Q1 to find Massa and Heidfeld on the cusp of going out. I had thought that Nick Heidfeld, with his experience of testing for Pirelli, and with Renault having the best car they've had in years, would be scrapping for at least the third row of the grid. As Q1 ended, he couldn't rise above 18th place and fell at the first hurdle.  Massa, thankfully, managed to pull himself up into 11th, but that was not as comfortable as it should have been given their pre-season form.

The early surprise of the day was that the McLarens were looking a lot stronger than their testing form suggested. Also frustrating was the fact that the nice new Red Bull gear box and Renault engine didn't seem to have the desired effect from the Lotus. According to Ted Kravitz, the issue was getting heat into the tyres. Let's hope that improves when we get to warmer climes.

It was fun to watch the different styles of adjustable rear wings. McLaren's looks a lot more robust and rounded and smooth in a way than Mercedes, for example. Don't ask me about the engineering because it will only lead to my embarrassment and won't be in any way enlightening for you.

An unexpected early casualty of Q2 was Rubens Barrichello, who made a bit of an elementary error which he put his hands up to completely, as you'd expect from someone who is as honest and grown up. Other drivers might have blamed tyres, or a fag end on the track, or a slippery white line, but Rubens stepped up. That's just one of the reasons I love him.

Adrian Sutil had a huge spin, which, amazingly, he managed to correct, at the end of a lap in Q2. It left him down in 16th place. This to me also illustrated a huge increase in the quality of the BBC's commentary. I reckon Jonathan Legard would have actually understood what had happened. David Coulthard had it spot on, articulated well, almost before Sutil was out of the spin. More on that later.

 It was fabulous, though, to see Sutil's team mate, Bathgate's Paul Di Resta qualify confidently in 14th on his debut. He was remarkably cool and calm during a live interview 30 minutes before quali. I was very impressed. 

There was never any doubt that the Red Bulls were going to be dominant - the big surprise, though, was that the McLaren's were up there with them. Sebastian Vettel stormed to a pole position that was faster than last year's, even with the reduced downforce and lack of double diffusers. He was still 0.8 seconds ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who cheekily swiped second place from Mark Webber by 0.088 of a second.
McLaren, and probably Lewis, were ready to blame his failure on the fact that his KERS was playing up. Martin Whitmarsh was at great pains to point out how much of a disadvantage that would have put him at, because you don't just lose the speed boost, but the braking balance goes off and you have the additional weight for nothing. Clearly the aim was to say "Vettel, we'd have had you if we'd only had KERS." The look on Lewis Hamilton's face when it became clear during the press conference that Vettel hadn't even used his magic button was a bit of a classic. I'll remember that one for a long time.

I do wonder, though, if someone needs to tell Sebastian Vettel to get over himself. He has always been such a lovely chap, really engaging and happy, and humorous. Sometimes, though, and I know this from politics, there's a battle to keep people's feet on the ground once they achieve great things. It's easy with some people, to keep them real, but others can develop a sort of pretentious arsiness that is most unattractive. I know that English is not his first language, but even so, his comments on the team radio after his pole position lap were a bit, well, suited to the Luvvies column in Private Eye.
"Yes, yes, boys, we keep on working, we do our thing, we are who we are"
Time to grab hold of his ankles and help him gently back down to earth, I think.

A trio of final observations on the cars. You know how I said that Renault should have made the third row of the grid anyway. Well, Vitaly Petrov did. That proves the car is capable of good things and bodes well for the future.

I was gutted to see Michael Schumacher not make it into Q3 after such a promising final test, especially when Rosberg qualified 8th. Not a great position for the team to be in, but it is only the first race.

And the Hispania's are s-l-o-w. I bet a few of the go-karts at the track up the road at Deans could give them a run for their money. They were the only ones outside the 107%. I still think they should be allowed to race, as there is that discretion, it is the first race and I hate the rule. How are they ever going to get any better if they start losing sponsorship or potential sponsorship if they can't get through the weekend?

I mentioned earlier how DC, on his commentary debut, was spot on with his analysis of Sutil's spin. I really thought that his partnership with the now lead commentator Martin Brundle worked fabulously. I always thought it would, to be honest. DC was clearly nervous, and it seemed from what he said afterwards that he thought the commentary box was a bit claustrophobic, but he did well. He got distracted a couple of times - once when he was explaining the lap delta stuff on the steering wheel, but that commentary box had more passion for the sport and clarity of commentary in one qualifying session than in a whole season with Jonathan Legard. For a start, Brundle's voice has a variety of tone and pitch and speed that in itself keeps you awake. He's stepped up instinctively to the role of lead commentator and what I liked more than anything else was how clearly he explained things. He's found us a great analogy for the tyre colours:

silver - hard - knife

white - medium - toast

yellow - soft - butter

red - supersoft - jam

Genius - I'm not going to forget that now, even if I loved Doctorvee's take on it.

As for tomorrow, we'll have to see firstly if Red Bull in general and Vettel in particular can convert the advantage of pole position into a race win. Or will Hamilton sneak past at the start? Or will they both get impetuous and take each other off. Not, of course that I would take any pleasure in that happening. If Hamilton gets past, how long before he ruins his tyres and loses the advantage?  The way the grid is set up, with the Red Bulls alternating with McLarens and Alonso and Petrov ready to pounce, could bring all manner of surprises. I can't wait.

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