Q1 saw the entire pit lane fall asleep. After about half the time was over they came out and we had 10 minutes of the usual business, with the pointless teams being joined, again, by Bottas and Gutierrez. Excepting Bianchi, the rookies do not seem to be shining this year.
Q2 was a bit more surprising as it saw both Force Indias jettisoned. Perez could only manage 12th (behind Di Resta and ahead of Sutil) with Maldonado and Vergne bottom of the timesheet. Fourteenth was occupied by Webber, as he suffered a dastardly fuel problem. It's not entirely clear what the situation is at the time of writing, but I'd expected him to be put to the back of the grid.
Q3 even managed to be dull. Nobody came out for the first half, although there was some interest when three drivers (Button, Vettel and Hulkenberg, who did well to make the last session) decided to go out on the medium tyre. Hamilton got a great pole, and Raikkonen claimed 2nd after flying in under the radar. Alonso could only manage 3rd, but he may well be happy with that given he beat Massa for the first time in five qualifying sessions. Rosberg, who missed out on some setup time due to a P3 problem was 4th then came Massa, Grosjean and Ricciardo, who did very well to reach the session at all. Button came 8th because he was the only chap who went out on the medium tyre and set a time (a comedy time 31 seconds off the pace, but still), whereas Vettel and Hulkenberg trundled around and didn't bother setting a lap time.
There's a huge divergence between the tyres despite them being adjacent in the quartet of Pirelli's dry range. The soft is crumbly like cheese and will not be the tyre of choice in the race. The medium is a bit slower but surprisingly durable.
The race is expected to be dry, so those starting on softs will probably pit pronto and those who opted for medium will probably try and leave the soft tyre until the very last laps. The Force Indias and Perez will lose, to a degree at least, the usual bonus of being top of the Q2 departure list because the three chaps ahead of them will start on the medium tyre (as Vettel and Hulkenberg did not set a time they could go for the soft tyre initially, but that would be rather a surprise).
Ferrari, and Massa in particular, seemed to be better on the soft tyres with high fuel in P2 than anyone else. This will help, but medium tyre pace and wear will matter more. That was pretty close amongst all the top teams although Ferrari seemed a bit off the pace. Mercedes had very bad soft tyre wear in P2, no idea if they managed to fix it later (they were good on the medium tyre, in terms of pace, however).
Interestingly, if you believe that starting on the medium gives a serious advantage, that would make McLaren and Force India contenders to top score, although Button sounded very downbeat (0.8s off the pace on medium) after qualifying. If it turns out that grid position matters more then Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari are set fair.
The race will be 56 laps, I think, with 4-10 laps expected for the first stint on softs with the medium expected to be good for circa 20 laps. So, a two-stopper seems on the cards, regardless of starting tyre, although three or four are possible.
Webber starts from the back after being penalised for lack of fuel. This does not mean he's out of the running even for a podium, although obviously it's a big setback.
I was thinking about looking at McLaren to top score or for Button to get a podium, but he sounded very downbeat during his post-qualifying interview (I missed the last 20 minutes and just caught it on the iPlayer). 0.8s off the pace on medium tyres is significant, although if he can be kinder to the tyres and make one fewer stop then that'd make up for it.
Apologies for the forthcoming ramble. I'm hoping it'll help me decide what to bet on.
The race, as is often the case, is very hard to call but we should have a clear(ish) idea of how it'll go initially. After the start the top 7 (all on the soft tyres with which they qualified) will pit fairly shortly (Horner estimated 4-10 laps). This will automatically mean that those from 8th and down (Button, Vettel, Hulkenberg et al.) will be in the lead. Now, the soft tyre is reputedly a second a lap faster, but degrades at about half a second a lap. This varies a bit and Massa was impressive on soft tyres in P2 but the broad picture is accurate. So, after 4-10 laps the top 7 on the grid will probably pit and come out into traffic (I imagine almost everyone 8 and lower will start on the medium tyre). Not sure how long a pit stop takes in China but about 18s give or take seems reasonable.
So, the traffic and potentially one fewer pit stop should give the medium-starters a strategic advantage. Weighed against that is the possible pace advantage of the Mercedes, Lotus and Ferrari.
After the first stops of the softs we should expected Vettel, Button, Hulkenberg etc to lead the race for a few laps whilst they stay out and take advantage of their durable rubber.
It's very tough to try and call whether the top 3 on the grid stand a better chance of victory than the highest-placed medium tyre drivers. I've decided (after prolonged contemplation) to go for Vettel for the win at 7, with a hedge set up at 2.5.
There's the 50/50 possibility that the medium-starters will have a pit stop in hand or just benefit from the soft tyre being used last (when fuel loads are light and degradation is a little less), and I think it's reasonably likely that he'll either be leading or in the top 3 after the initial stops of those who begin on the soft tyre, which will hopefully see the hedge matched.
Hamilton made a slight jibe about Vettel being a lucky driver. Let's hope that's true.