Japanese GP - Saturday - Qualifying Session Report
Lewis turns the tide?
Lewis Hamilton took his fifth pole position of the year at Mount Fuji on Saturday afternoon, his fourth if you are a Spaniard and do not count the Hungarian GP (where Fernando Alonso was dumped down the grid for dodgy business in the pitlane). Getting P1 is a special moment for any F1 rookie - even Lewis Hamilton - and you could see that as Lewis did a cockpit dance of joy when he heard that pole was his. But this one may be more important than that. A victory in Japan on Sunday will put the Englishman into a strong position in the World Championship even if Alonso is behind him by the end of the race, Hamilton will have grabbed two extra points and thus extended his World Championship lead to four points and that will be a useful thing for him to carry into the last two races. In this world of 100% reliability, every point counts and closing gaps is not easy - as Ferrari has found. In recent weeks the pendulum has swung back and forth between Ferrari and McLaren and within the McLaren team between Hamilton and Alonso but in Fuji it was Lewis on the upswing again and Fernando with that mid-air stare that modern F1 drivers adopt when they are disappointed.
Much will depend on the decisions taken in the McLaren garage before the Q3 session began. This is not so much over strategy but rather what they believe the weather will do. Some drivers reckoned that Sunday would be dry, others felt that the Grand Prix will be wet. And they set up their cars accordingly. And there will be many shades of grey. Thus while Sebastian Vettel may have looked sensational in Q1 that may be because he chose to have a full wet setting, while others hedged their bets and went for full dry set-up. In a dry race those on wet settings are going to be in big trouble. And so we have something of a lottery on our hands.
The other factor which makes life more difficult is that there are not many clues as to who is where with Friday not really showing very much given that everyone was learning about the race track. Only a handful of the current F1 drivers have raced at Fuji and the new track is very new so there were lessons for all to learn.
On Friday morning it had been Ferrari that looked strongest but that is not unusual this year and in the afternoon the two McLarens rose to the top of the lists. Nothing could be learned on Saturday morning and so the drivers had to figure out what to do in a busy Q1 session. By the end Felipe Massa was ahead but the margin was tiny with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen right with him. Lewis Hamilton was fourth quickest and seemed to be just a heartbeat off the ultimate pace. There were some surprises in the session with Vettel looking spectacularly good and Jenson Button preforming much better than expected in his Honda.
And there were setbacks too: notably at Toyota where Ralf Schumacher made it through to Q2 in the final minutes of the session and then did something absolutely daft and crashed into Sakon Yamamoto. By doing that he eliminated himself from the rest of the session as the car was damaged and stuck out on the circuit, giving the team no time to fix the problem. This meant that he would end up 16th on the grid (which became 15th because Nico Rosberg had to take a 10-place penalty for an engine change). With Jarno Trulli only 13th (14th fastest) it would mean a long walk for the top men at Toyota on Sunday - and that is never appreciated by the men with the big chequebooks. They like to stop at the front of the grid.
Out at the end of Q1 went Rubens Barrichello (not a great day for Honda), Alexander Wurz (not a great day for Austria), Anthony Davidson, Adrian Sutil, Takuma Sato and Yamamoto.
The Q2 session took Hamilton to the front, beating Alonso by a small margin on a track that was beginning to dry out. Ferrari were third and fourth with Kimi Raikkonen ahead of Felipe Massa. Nick Heidfeld, as he had been in Q1. while Button was sixth ahead of Robert Kubica's BMW Sauber, Red Bull's Mark Webber eighth and the Williams-Toyota of Nico Rosberg. The top 10 was rounded out by Vettel, which meant that it was a dreadful day for Renault as neither Giancarlo Fisichella now Heikki Kovalainen made the top 10. Also gone were David Coulthard (Red Bull), Trulli, Liuzzi and Ralf, who never got a run.
And so to the Q3 session and a period of fuel-burning before the real fight began. Some chose to go for just one run, hoping to benefit as the track dried. Others went for the usual two-stop qualifying and thus it was that Hamilton found himself at the end of the session chasing the pole, which stood at that point to Fernando Alonso. On the run to the flag Hamilton had to get ahead of a dawdling Ferrari but he had enough time in hand to grab pole from Alonso and the celebration suggested that Hamilton knows that qualifying is important.
The two Ferraris were next and perhaps they had more fuel. Perhaps not. Nick Heidfeld was fifth, with Nico Rosberg sixth, although this became 16th thanks to his penalty and Button will start sixth with Webber seventh, Vettel eighth and Kubica ninth.
Opening the curtains on Sunday morning is going to an experience enjoyed by some and hated by others...
Hopefully this will guarantee a good race, one way or another.