Friday, 16 March 2012

Australia: pre-qualifying

First of all, thanks to those who commented on the last article. As well as being nice to read some of the comments also suggested some interesting possibilities I hadn’t considered before. (NB I don’t enable comment moderation, I think it happens automatically after a certain length of time).

Nigel pointed out I’d forgotten to comment on the probably tighter-than-last-year qualifying situation. I think he’s absolutely right, not just regarding Q3, but even to escape Q1.

Marussia and HRT will probably stack up 4/7 of the Q1 slots, but there may well be a ferocious battle between Caterham, Williams and maybe others to escape the ignominy of being out in the first qualifying session.

However, it seems likely that the battle to reach Q3 will be titanic. We’ve got (if speculation is right) two top teams in Red Bull and McLaren, and none of the four drivers are rubbish. So, that leaves six slots for The Rest. Ferrari is reputed to be off the pace, Lotus and Mercedes have put in good efforts and Force India have two very talented young drivers. The lower half of the top 10 on the grid will, I think, be highly variable throughout the season and may present some opportunities.

Incidentally, there’s also the possibility of intra-team divergence. Schumacher has improved markedly regarding racing, but he’s still qualifying a league below Rosberg. However, he (Schumacher) starts fantastically, and in the latter half of 2011 was the better driver (in the race). Rosberg tends to get the most out of the car in qualifying, but this also means it’s hard for him to make up ground in the race.

We’ll have to see if this is proven true, but the Lotus and Ferrari are reckoned to be very good over a few laps, but to have high degradation (and the prancing horse is inconsistent). So, they may qualify well but then be handicapped in the race (this would also benefit Mercedes, which appears to have solved its rear tyre-shredding problem, at last).

The tyres are softer than last year (the supersoft remains the same and 2011’s medium is 2012’s hard). This may benefit Button and Vettel, and harm Webber, who found it took him a while to get to grips with the Pirellis last year.

No tip for qualifying in Australia. It’s a brand new season, and due to the timezone difference P3 is at about 3am UK time. However, I’ll run through P1 and P2.

Due to insomnia I actually listened to most of P1 and caught the back end of P2. Here’s a summary of who was where:

P1 – Button and Hamilton locked out the top places for McLaren. Almost half a second down the road was Schumacher, followed by Alonso, Webber and Rosberg. 7th was taken by Ricciardo, then came Maldonado, Raikkonen and Kobayashi.

P2 – Schumacher got the top slot, which isn’t bad for a man competing in his 932nd Grand Prix. He beat the talented whippersnapper Hulkenberg into 2nd, then came Perez, Alonso and Kobayashi. Di Resta was 6th, followed by Massa, Kovalainen, Rosberg and Vettel.

The impression I got was that the Mercedes could be good. However, P1 started off pretty damp (though there was good dry running at the end). Ferrari seems to be in trouble. Alonso was going hell for leather, and I think that was because he had to rather than because he wanted to. McLaren’s still looking good, and Vettel was 11th and 10th, which is unexpected. I don’t think that’s a pace issue, and Alguesuari (expert chap on R5 now) reckoned Red Bull was testing a new thingummyjig.

Remember, generally speaking P1 is about getting a feel for the initial setup, P2’s about getting the long run, high-fuel pace right and P3 is for final race and qualifying setup and qualifying simulation.

So, practice is fuzzy as ever, but does lend a little more credence to the consensus that Ferrari have buggered up big time, and McLaren and Red Bull are still top dogs. It also slightly suggests that Mercedes might be closer to the top two than Ferrari and Lotus.

However, Alguesuari made the interesting point that Mercedes’ excellent DRS (now married to a lovely F-duct-in-all-but-name) would really help in qualifying (available for 56% of the lap: but that, relatively, Mercedes would be slower in the race because it would be able to use the DRS far less and would lose more pace (relative to other teams) because of this.

Alguesuari also suggested that the best place to overtake is turn 3, at the end of the second DRS zone, which means that more overtaking may well be easier and that a super DRS could help a lot with that.

Unless I see something to change my mind I’m going to stick with my 2011 approach of taking P3 and its qualifying simulation as the best guide to qualifying. So, as I won’t be listening to that live and it’s a new season, I won’t be offering a qualifying tip.

The most interesting parts of qualifying will be as follows:

Will Schumacher be able to match Rosberg? In the last two years he’s been a mile behind in qualifying but looked good in practice.

Will Mercedes be able to upset the McLaren-Red Bull dominance?

How well or badly will Ferrari do?

Most importantly, who’ll get pole? A Hamilton-Webber-Vettel battle could be on the cards.

For the race, my intention is to offer 1-2 tips, but obviously that depends on odds available and how the grid lines up.

Morris Dancer

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